Wednesday, August 16, 2017


It was pointed out to me that I have never actually written down any of my rules about dragons, how they attack or what form they take.  I was surprised, actually.  I thought I had done it by now.

But no, I hadn't.  So here is a go at the content, collected in the next three posts, which are all copied from the wikispaces entries that I wrote today.  The content in the first post describes the dragon's combat abilities, along with details that apply to all dragons.  The second post gives the eight dragon ages, with some of my own names replacing those in the old monster manual. Finally, the third post gives an example of a dragon entry.  I really ought to work more on my wikipedia bestiary.

Dragons come in many forms, but fundamentally there are certain biological characteristics that all dragons possess. Dragons are covered in thick, heavy scales that serve as a powerful armor. All dragons will have four limbs, the potential to claw their opponents, a devastating bite and a tail capable of whipping opponents. Some dragons may lack wings, particularly those that dwell in underwater environments. While all dragons will produce various gases or liquids from an alchemical gland that is found just below the base of the dragon's long neck, the nature of the 'breath weapon' that emerges from this gland will vary from dragon to dragon.

Dragons that have wings will be able to beat these wings with sufficient force to cause a strong, buffeting wind, capable of causing damage and therefore stunning opponents. Some dragons of remarkable intelligence will have the ability to produce the effects of spells ~ however, this is not a "casting" ability, as dragons do not need to memorize this magic. The ability is inherent and therefore a remarkable dragon can discharge a set number of spells at will, per day. This is further described in detail below.

There are a number of misleading myths and ideas about dragons that do not apply to dragons in my world. It is, for example, nearly impossible to encounter a dragon that is sleeping. Dragons are the most prescient and dangerous creatures in all the world, precisely because it is so difficult to catch them off guard ~ and so the wishful thought that a dragon could be caught sleeping is a fantasy tale that emerges as a metaphor for accomplishing the impossible. Furthermore, dragons cannot be "subdued" as some would believe, being fantastically intelligent, nimble and very large in size. They do not intimidate easily and are nearly impossible to contain. Since a dragon's body is also covered in spines and sharpened ridges, they cannot be grappled, even by giant creatures, without damage occurring from the dragon's writhing body, not to mention that it would be difficult to keep from being ripped to pieces by a dragon's claws. Finally, some believe that dragons are cowardly, egotistical or driven to foolish acts out of a greed for wealth; these notions, too, are tales told by those who have sought to make nonsensical stories about dragons seem more plausible for dramatic purpose. There are reasons for these tales, in that less powerful dragons may be quite young and inexperienced, and potentially at the mercy of flattery and other enticements ~ older, more powerful dragons, however, are enormously wise and well-versed of the ways of weaker creatures. It is best well to assume that a strange dragon will make poor decisions that can be exploited.

Hit Dice, Mass and Age

Dragons will typically have a range of hit dice rather than a specific number. For example, a green dragon has 7-9 hit dice, while a silver dragon will have 9-11. This range indicates whether or not a dragon is willowy, sturdy or robust, these descriptions corresponding to the lowest number in the range of hit dice, the middle number or the highest number. A robust green dragon would have 9 hit dice.

The number of hit points that a dragon has depends upon its mass; a dragon's mass depends upon its species and upon its age. Typically, all adult-sized dragons will weigh approximately 500 lbs. per hit die. The robust green dragon above would weigh about 4,500 lbs, while a willowy green dragon would weigh 3,500 lbs. When we compare these numbers to the number of hit points per hit die, we discover that a willowy green dragon would 3d4 hit points per hit die (a total of 21d4, an average of 52.5), while a robust green dragon would have a d6 plus a d8 per hit die (9d6 + 9d8, an average of 72).

These numbers apply to the adult form of the dragon. Throughout their lives, dragons pass through 8 stages of growth: hatchling, yeulding,young, near-grown, adult, old, very old and ancient. The first five of these, from hatchling to adult, indicate an increase in size. The latter three, from old to ancient, indicate an increase in experience. (see Dragon's Lifespan). As dragons mature, they will have less hit dice, less of their full-grown attributes and less power to cause damage or breathe their signature weapon. Therefore, the actual age of the dragon must be taken into account to determine their effectiveness.

Melee Attacks: Claw, Bite & Tail

Despite their size, dragons are tremendously sprightly, limber creatures that are able to spin their bodies with amazing quickness. Some mistake dragons for lumbering like elephants, but it is much more true to say that dragons attack with the speed and merciless agility of a leopard or a shark.

The head is tremendously large and sits atop a flexible neck that can stretch to attack a creature up to three combat hexes from the dragon's main body. This encourages defenders who would cast spells (which the dragon's intelligence would recognize as a danger to be stopped!) to keep well back. Moreover, since the dragon can twist in place, the head is able to attack in any direction during a given round (though the dragon must turn its body 60 degrees to attack someone directly behind).

The dragon's claws are designed to attack creatures directly in front; each claw can do an effective amount of damage, with larger dragons easily killing a 1st-level defender in one blow. The dragon will begin combat by attacking multiple people with its bite and claws, then concentrating all its attacks the following round on any creature that is hit without being stunned.

If an adult or older dragon strikes with both claws in a given round, whether at the same or different targets, a dragon will then rake with its back claws, effectively gaining two additional attacks.

The dragon's tail, usually enriched with spikes and ridges, can cause nearly as much damage as the bite. The dragon will usually use it to attack anything that is to its rear or flank. It will always turn and strike with its tail upon giving round. Because of the tail's momentum and size, any small or medium-sized creature that is stunned by the tail will be knocked two hexes from the place where it was hit.


Dragons that have reached the age of being nearly grown are able to buffet their wings. This is less about the size of their wings than it is about the speed with which the dragon can flex them, creating a strong wind that will cause real damage. The dragon will rear up, forego an attack with its claws (the head and tail may still attack) and rapidly beat its wings, affecting a 180-degree circle radiating outwards from the dragon's body.

Anyone within four combat hexes of the dragon (20 feet) may suffer damage from buffeting. The amount caused is 1 h.p. per HD of the dragon. Those affected may make save against magic, suffering only 2 damage if they succeed (regardless of the dragon's hit dice).

Creatures larger than 510 lbs. will not be forced back by the severe wind, but lighter characters must give ground. Those starting within 3 hexes of the dragon (15 feet) must fall back two hexes; those between 4 and 6 hexes away must fall back one hex. Creatures that weigh 80 lbs. or less must move back an additional hex, wherever they are standing when affected. All movement must be in a direction away from the center of the dragon's body.

Buffeting with put out torches and lanterns of all sorts (some of the effect is magical, so that the wind will insinuate itself into the cracks of a lantern), knock birds out of the air and force them to land, stir up dust and create obscurement for one round, and fan the flames of any fire that covers an area of more than one combat hex.

The dragon must have room to buffet. Buffeting can be done while the dragon hovers anywhere up to 10 feet above the ground. Typically, a dragon will buffet before escaping, or moving off to seek a better defending position. Buffeting can also be done simultaneously with a dragon's breath weapon.

Flying & Hovering

If there is room, dragons prefer to fly rather than fight from the ground. It's best tactic is to beat its wings sufficiently to bounce from the ground up to ten feet in the air, striking with its claws upon landing, with its bite and tail from actually being in the air and then timing its attack so that it is moving upwards to ten feet, then hovering a second or two before descending. This means that the players are unable to use short melee weapons, though pole-arms remain effective.

If the dragon then chooses not to attack another round, it can beat its wings and take for the air (or buffeting hard) before actually touching the ground again. The combination of these tactics make a dragon very hard to fight in the open air, so that a dragon would rather escape its cave to fight than to remain cornered. In the air, the dragon can raze the ground with its breath weapon, strike with tail and head while flying over the heads of its enemies and retreat to thirty or forty hexes away in just two or three rounds ~ where it can wait before moving in to strike again, or give more ground until it finds an advantage.

Breath Weapon

The dragon's breath weapon comes in all forms: fire, liquid acid, poisonous and sleeping gas, blasting ice, lightning and so on. Principally, it is an area of effect weapon that causes a tremendous amount of unavoidable damage that can be reduced by luck but not avoided. I like that dragons are powerful enough to have this effect.

Rules most commonly try to give the area of effect of a breath weapon according to the location of the mouth and the radiating cone or path, or the dimensions of the cloud being produced. These rules discount the possibility of the dragon swinging its head around in a circle or a straggling strafing path as the dragon flies over a crowd of enemies. Therefore the rules I will play by will measure the dragon's breath weapon by the number of combat hexes the dragon can effect at a time, so long as the hexes connect together and form an imaginable path. The specific number of hexes, and the effects of each dragon's breath weapon, will be discussed on pages describing specific dragons.

Not all breath weapons cause damage. Those that do cause damage will also require that characters to make save for items in their possession. Any characters in an affected hex must make saving throw against breath weapon; the amount of damage is halved if the saving throw is made, or the effects of non-damage causing clouds is reduced or dispelled.

Additional Notes

I have suspended a number of rules that apply to dragons in old D&D's Monster Manual, such as the aura of fear surrounding dragons, ferocity bonuses associated with mated pairs fighting together, all rules associated with subduing dragons, the convoluted manner in which dragon saving throws are calculated (dragons save according to their hit dice or energy levels), calculations for dragon treasure and dragon alignments.

To my mind, all dragons have an intelligence that permits them to speak. Only old, very old or ancient dragons have magic use, as I have indicated on my Dragon's Lifespan page. Not all dragons are either metallic or colored, nor are dragons locked into a two-dimensional moralistic view of the world. Dragons are intelligent creatures, of all sorts, some bad, some good, some self-interested, some generous and so on. Not all dragons are solitary; I have two places in my world (so far) where dragons have actually formed a social structure and which are treated by outsiders as sovereign territories. The last thing I want in a game called Dungeons & Dragons is a narrow minded view of how dragon culture works.

For the time being, I will let these details stand as is, coming back another time to flesh out anything that seems needful. At this point, it would be best to start writing about the motivations behind individual species. I've played with the nomenclature a little, but after some though I must admit that I'm used to using the colors to describe them.

The other two posts, then follow after this one; I posted them in reverse order, so they could be read from front to back on the blog.

Dragon's Lifespan

Dragons are born from eggs laid by adult dragons. The gestation time of a dragon's egg is typically a period of one year. Dragon eggs are magical in construction and thus will be revealed by detect magic spells and devices. After birth, dragons pass through 8 stages of growth: hatchling, yeulding, young,near-grown, adult, old, very old and ancient. The first five of these, from hatchling to adult, indicate an increase in size. The latter three, from old to ancient, indicate an increase in experience. Dragons also occur in three forms: willowy, sturdy and robust. See Hit Dice, Mass & Age for descriptions of these.

As dragons grow, they gain in hit dice, hit points, ferocity and dangerous potential. Even the most immature of dragons make formidable opponents, while dragons of great experience are probably the most dangerous mortal beings in the world.


At birth, a hatchling will be about 5% the full mass of an adult dragon. Thus, while a sturdy brass dragon would weigh about 3,500 lbs., a hatchling of the same species and form would weigh 175 lbs., or as big as a fully grown human. This calculation also gives the weight of the dragon's egg, not being something that can easily be moved. A hatchling is about 10% of a full-grown dragon's length.

A hatchling's hit dice will be only 1/4 that of an adult, always rounded down. The aforementioned brass dragon would have 7 hit dice as an adult, but only 1 hit die as a hatchling (and attack as such). Comparing hit points per die would show that the hatchling would have only 1d8 hit points.

Hatchlings will remain of this age for only a month after birth, before quickly morphing into yeuldings. They will emerge from the egg with claws and teeth, but with only bony stubs where their wings will someday be and only a short, not-yet-grown tail. The claws will cause 1-3 damage and the bite 1-6. The body of a hatchling is soft, so that this calculation should be used to determine its armor class: (x + 10)/2, where x is the armor class of an adult dragon, with all fractions rounded up. The brass dragon with an armor class of 2 would, as a hatchling, have an armor class of 6.

Hatchlings possess a breath weapon that will cause 1 hit point per hit die of their fully grown selves. The hatchling brass dragon in the example above will someday have 7 hit dice, so its breathweapon will cause 7 damage, 3 if a saving throw is made. The alchemical gland is immature, however, so that it will drain after only one use in 24 hours. As well, the effective range and volume is only one combat hex, or 5 feet.


A month after emerging from the egg, a hatchling will molt its outer skin and grow in a few days to yeulding size. During this time the dragon will be vulnerable and unable to defend itself, but typically the dragon will bury itself in mud or sand up to ten feet deep, sometimes finding these conditions at the bottom of a pool or pond. The adult dragon will usually be nearby and protective of the yeulding. Dragons molt in this manner only once in their lives.

Once the yeulding passes through this period of growth, it will be 20% the full mass of an adult dragon. While a sturdy brass dragon would weigh 3,500 lbs., a yeulding of the same species and form would weigh 700 lbs. A yeulding is about 30-40% of an adult dragon's length. It's hit dice will be 1/2 that of an adult, always rounded down. Thus, whereas a sturdy adult brass dragon has 7 hit dice, a similar yeulding has 3 hit dice. A brass dragon yeulding of this form would have 3d10 hit points.

Yeuldings will remain of this age for about four years, before experiencing a radical growth spurt. Yeuldings will have wings that have sprouted and their tails will lengthen; however, yeuldings cannot fly and the tail is not flexible enough to be used as a weapon. The scales of a yeulding's body will be as hard as that of an adult, so that they possess the same armor class as an adult dragon. The damage from a yeulding's bite and claws will be 1/2 that of an adult.

Yeuldings possess a breath weapon that will cause 2 hit points per hit die of their fully grown selves. The yeulding brass dragon in the example above will someday have 7 hit dice, so its breath weapon will cause 14 damage, 7 if a saving throw is made. The alchemical gland is yet immature, however, so that it will drain after only two uses in 24 hours. The effective range and volume is reduced also, to an area of 3combat hexes, straight out or sprayed in front of the dragon's mouth in a shortened cloud.

Young Dragons

The growth spurt of a yeulding to a young dragon is a dramatic shifting and adjusting of the dragon's outer appendages, happening over a period of 2-4 months. The limbs extend, the wings grow out and the tail becomes flexible and longer, while the dragon's neck lengthens, enabling it more control over the placement of its breath weapon. The bones of the dragon can be literally heard as they grow, a cracking, sometimes grinding sound. In overall mass, the dragon does not increase that much ~ only to 40% of the full mass of an adult dragon. Throughout the process, the dragon will be able to protect itself and should be considered to be no longer a yeulding once the process has passed the second month.

Young dragons are about 75% of an adult dragon's length. It will have the hit dice of a full-grown adult, less 2. A young, sturdy brass dragon would have 5 HD. At 40% of the adult dragon's mass, it would weigh about 1,400 lbs. and have 5d12 hit points. Young dragons will have the full use of their wings for flying and of their tails as weapons, but as they are quite clumsy they have not yet learned how to maintain a buffeting rhythm nor how to rake with their back claws. The damage from a young dragon's bite, claws and tail will be 3/4 that of an adult.

Young dragons will also have reached a weight and size where they cause incidental damage.

Young dragons possess a breath weapon that will cause 3 hit points per die of their fully grown selves. A young brass dragon of the example above would someday have 7 HD, so its breath weapon will cause 21 damage, 10 if a saving throw is made. The alchemical gland is yet immature, however, so that it will drain after only two uses in 24 hours. The effective range and volume is reduced also, to half the area of effect of an adult dragon.

Young dragons will not mature until they reach an age of 15-18 years.

Near-Grown Dragons

After 13 years of age, a young dragon's overall body and bulk will begin to mature, as the bones harden and gain weight, as the dragon's spines and ridges stiffen and increase the dragon's protection against hand-to-hand attack. Beginning at 15 years of age, some dragons must be considered nearly grown to adulthood; no dragon that is 18 years of age or older can be considered young.

Nearly grown dragons will have 80% of the full mass of an adult dragon and be equal in length. Thus, they are hard to distinguish from adults. Near-grown dragons will attack with the full hit dice of their adult dragon peers and cause damage with their bite, claws and tail that is equal to an adult dragon. They will be able to buffet with their wings (for 1-4 damage) but will, as yet, be unable to rake with their back claws.

Because of the spines and ridges on a near-grown dragon's body, the amount of incidental damage caused is double-normal, or potentially 1 damage per 500 lbs. of the dragon's weight.

Near-grown dragons possess a breath weapon that will cause 4 damage per hit die. A near-grown sturdy brass dragon's breath weapon would cause 28 damage, 14 if saving throw is made. The alchemical gland is still that of a young dragon, however, so that it will drain after only two uses in 24 hours. The effective range and volume is reduced also, to half the area of effect of an adult dragon.

A prime difference between near-grown dragons and adult dragons is that the former cannot mate or lay eggs. As such, being of full size but not yet with the responsibility of a family, near-grown dragons are the most likely to be encountered as solitary dragons in the wide world. Because they are only 15 to 40 years of age, it is the behaviour of near-grown dragons that has often created the myths and false beliefs about dragons.

Adult Dragons

Once maturing to adult, typically something that comes about gradually between the age of 35 and 40, a dragon has reached the pinnacle of its physical characteristics. It will weigh approximately 500 lbs. per hit die, attack ably with bite, claws (including the ability to rake with its back claws), tail and with buffeting wings. The amount of incidental damage caused by the dragon is double-normal, or potentially 1 damage per 500 lbs. of the dragon's weight (or coincidentally 1 h.p. per HD).

An adult's breath weapon will cause 5 damage per hit die. The alchemical gland that produces the substance of the dragon's breath will sustain three uses in 24 hours and will reach to the full range and area of effect of the dragon's power.

Adult dragons will mate for life. They will remain adults until reaching 80 to 100 years of age, and during that time will raise a brood every 12 years, typically in the late spring or at the start of the wet season, so that hatchlings will be able to molt into yeuldings when mud and wet sand is available. Dragons will fly up to 10,000 miles to isolated areas of mud and sand, often choosing the thickness of jungles, muskeg bogs, isolated island atolls or deep deserts (where some yeuldings will molt under sand dunes).

Broods will consist of 1 to 4 hatchlings, of which one in four will typically die during the molting stage for reasons that are generally unknown. Population growth can become unstable for a time, but typically dragons are removed from the prime material plane to the outer planes for a variety of reasons; typically, a pair of mated adults are chosen to breed elsewhere. This helps reduce the number of dragons being bred on Earth.

Old, Very Old and Ancient Dragons

Once reaching an age where dragon pairs become infertile, anywhere from 80 to 100 years of age, they will settle in a permanent lair where they may remain the rest of their lives. This will often not be the same location where they gave birth, as that was founded on the strange growth cycle of dragons and not necessarily with a desire to protect themselves. Old dragons will prefer deep caves inside mountains of every climate, large impassable swamp lands, the top ridge of ocean trenches or crevices of great size amidst glaciers, depending on the species of dragon.

While they do not become physically stronger or increase their hit dice, once old dragons settle they will being to accumulate energy levels, similar to the levels that characters gain as they accumulate experience. Dragons gain knowledge directly through the earth, through a meditation that is enabled by the magical design of their minds, enabling them to grow in power as clerics or mages, and most commonly as fighters. Typically, an old dragon will have gained their first level within 5 years of seclusion. Thereafter, they will gain a new level every 25-30 years, gaining hit points, spells, sage abilities and so on as they accumulate. These gains are indistinguishable from the levels a character will gain, except that dragons are able to discharge the spells they possess at will, without any requirement for the spells to be cast first.

Eventually, a dragon-fighter's skill will increase the number of attacks that a dragon will have each round, or increase the dragon's THAC0. In terms of sage abilities, old dragons tend to focus on general knowledge rather than applied abilities, since they expect to spend decades in contemplation, only occasionally rising to a discussion with other dragons of their age.

Old dragons, because of their experience and improved ability to target with their breath weapons, will cause 6 damage per hit die with their breath weapons. Very old dragons will cause 7 damage per hit die and ancient dragons will cause 8 damage. This is the primary physical difference, since the number of hit dice will not increase after the dragon becomes an adult, nor will the amount of damage the dragon is able to do with their physical bodies.

Typically, old dragons will become very old once they reach the 5th level of experience (between 160 and 195 total years of age). Very old dragons will become ancient once reaching the 9th level of experience (between 260 and 315 years of age). The maximum age of ancient dragons is unknown, but it is believed that they will pass away, if not discovered and killed, before they reach 600 years of age.

Dragonis Malignans

Also known as the "black dragon," generally perceived to be a vile-tempered flesh-eating creature prone to dwelling in remote swamps, bogs and extensive muskeg covered regions, particularly in northern temperate and sub-polar lands extending from Eastern Europe to Xachta. There are four known species of dragonis malignans, distinguished by the amount of grey, the pattern of horns crowning their skulls and their intelligence.

In the Pripyat marshes, where the dark grey variety (called wretched malignans among scholars) has been hunted almost to extinction, centuries of persecution have created a blood hatred between these dark grey dragons and most humanoids. The war against this species has created most legends about black dragons, that they are cruel, vicious and ruthless, with insatiable appetites and a special taste for children.

By comparison, the midnight-black variety that dwells throughout Magloshkagok, ostakis malignans, a close relative of the wretched variety, is virtually its opposite in nature and temperament. The ostakis is celebrated by the tribal goblins of the region, given ritual feasts during good seasons, treated well when encountered and are often sought out for council by elders. Ostakis dragons are also found in Bjarmaland, Samoyadia and to a lesser extent along the fringes of Nissi An.

Plavatis malignans are very dark greenish-grey in color and dwell in the river systems of the Ob, Irtysh, Yenisey and Lena, most likely to be found where the water is deepest. They have abandoned the use of their wings (which now consist of boneless membranes that drag along the river surface as they swim) and remain in water throughout the year, hibernating beneath ice in estuaries or deep lakes during the winter. The plavitis are generally unfriendly and rarely speak without outsiders, unless compelled.

Finally, the lesista malignans are forest dwellers, most often sheltering in rocky outcrops and caves in muskeg-sodden areas, or in forested hill country surrounded by large swampy areas such as the Vasyugan or Nimdobayek swamps. They are few in number but likely the most friendly of black dragons. They will generally give birth in mid-spring, then migrate once their hatchlings have grown into yeuldings.

On the whole, black dragons are territorial and will only bring an attack against unrecognized creatures moving into their domain. Ostakis and Lesista species will often take a wait and see attitude. When attacking, however, dragonis malignans spew a black bile that acts as an magical-based acid. This quickly breaks down once it leaves the dragon's body, making it impossible to preserve without magical means. Black dragons like to reserve this fluidic "breath" weapon for attacks from the air, flying above the tree tops and using the foliage for cover. They like to target boats on the water, to break a group's will to move deeper into their marsh.

In combat, they will prefer to fight immersed in water, as it decreases the size of their apparent body and forces enemies to move into the water to engage in hand-to-hand. Black dragons are excellent swimmers.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Designing a Player Character

I've stood by and watched a lot of characters get rolled.  I've watched the reaction to the dice and the process of settling where the ability scores get placed, what equipment gets chosen and the eternal questions of race, class, skills and so on get answered.  Even after all this time, I rather enjoy this part of the game, even though I haven't rolled up a character to play myself in, oh, about eight years.

My core method of starting a character hasn't changed much since the early 1980s.  I have the player roll four 6-sided dice, discarding the lowest die.  These are then placed according to the player's will under the six familiar stats (do I have to list them?).  The player does this while keeping the minimum requirements for classes in mind.  This used to be understood by everyone that played, but I suspect that's changed, and that 5e no longer requires minimum stats to be met in order to be a ranger, a paladin, a monk and so on.

I'll get into the question of why minimum stats are important (eventually), but let's start with why using a 4d6 and not 3d6 matters.  From the beginning, I bought into the argument that player characters ought to be "better" than ordinary people.  Not because they're heroes or because they uphold some great cause, but just because a better collection of stats ensures a recognizable edge on NPCs without those stats.  We can take a simple depiction to express the value in this: a player is running across a rooftop, being chased by an NPC.  The player has to make a leap from this rooftop to that; the distance is part of the calculation, but so is the player's strength or the player's dexterity (depending on whether we feel the ability to cross the distance is important or the ability to land well on the other side).  The player makes a roll and then the NPC makes a roll.

We would, I think, rather play in a world where the likelihood is that the player will make the jump and the NPC will fail. This fits with our dramatic instincts and with our self-image.  Whether or not we do good things, we are the good guys (we always think everyone else is the bad guys).  It just seems right that our chance of making that jump ought to be better than someone else's.  And when we make it, and they don't, the world seems to be operating in good order.

Of course, we could miss.  And of course, the NPC might also make it.  But the number of times this departure from our mental projection occurs matters to us.  Too many departures and we'll start to feel the game is rigged somehow, that there aren't enough chances for us to win.  Again, we're the good guys.  The DM's NPC doesn't really matter, right?

There are many who feel it's right if the players have exactly as much power to make that jump as NPCs ... but I can't agree.  As a DM, I don't have near as much invested in a NPC as the player has in their character.  It takes very little for me to produce another NPC as needed, as I don't need to spend a lot of time determining all their stats, their equipment or their particular details ~ certainly not for an NPC chasing the character across some rooftops.  The difference is considerable.  And since the game is about the player, I'm fine with the game interface being balanced for the player.

The 4d6 seems to make a good average improvement, without that improvement being excessive.  I've seen campaigns where it was 6d6 and drop the bottom three dice, or eighteen 3d6 rolls, or some other combination, most of which were named in the old, old DMG from 1979.  Other systems seem too balanced towards a superior player or they seem unnecessarily time-wasting.  4d6 less one die gives an average of 12-something instead of 10.5.  That is just enough to matter, without being enough to make the player feel safe. It fits with the amount of play I want the player to have within the game's structure.

The next question, then, is why let the character select where the rolls go?  There is a top-to-bottom philosophy that insists the die roll order fits the order of stats.  I think I understand: DMs felt the players shouldn't be allowed to consistently run the same class of characters all the time.  "Why does Glenn always have to play a fighter?" goes the logic.  Yet I think this is a DM's problem.  If it were Glenn's problem, Glenn would stop playing a fighter.  I think we should stay away from one person imposing their problem on another person's contentment.  I don't think there's a strong argument to be made for such things.

I like that the player gets some control over what they have to run for what I expect to be a long time.  I don't start games that are meant to stop soon and I haven't found many players whining about having to play a cleric or a mage because that's what they chose two years ago in real time.  That may be mitigated by my henchman rule, but I don't remember it being a problem before.  If it is a good game, and if all the player classes can prove themselves to be relevant in tackling the game's interface, then I think players just like the fact that they're stronger and tougher and have more resources at their disposal, whatever their class is.  The problem arises, I think, when the character improves in level but no real change results as to what the character can do.  The fighter was always an issue here: more hit points and a better combat table, even more attacks, does not make for a dynamic, growing character.  Thankfully, I've solved that problem too.

The player, then, reorders the numbers around the character class requirements and around what obstacles the player intends for the character to overcome.  When considering the number under a given stat, the player thinks in advance, I'm going to be solving a lot of problems that need an effective intelligence or constitution or charisma.  I should then start building my character's goals around my strongest stats.

Hm?  No?  Don't look at it that way?  Well, you're not alone.  No one looks at it that way.  They think, a high stat under charisma will make people like me, a high stat under strength will mean I do a lot of damage, etcetera.  They don't build characters ~ or agendas ~ around their stats.  But they ought to.

Consider.  I start with six rolls (and I'll roll these out).  I have a 14, a 15, a 10, an 18, a 13 and a 9.  Swear to gawd, I just rolled an 18.

Could be a fighter, but there's only a little Con and not much of anything else; I'd rather try a cleric.  It works better for this example, anyway.  I won't get a wisdom bonus in spells for ages but I'll put the 18 under wisdom and the 15 under constitution.  I feel I'm going to want to run a congregation someday so I'll shift the 14 under charisma and I'll take the 13 under strength so I'm able to carry armor and weapons without getting slowed down much.  That's a 10 for intelligence, but I plan to be a bullheaded cleric anyway, and a 9 for dexterity.  I doubt I'm going to run over many rooftops.  I'm far too wise to get into that sort of situation.

I'm running with a DM that is very much like me, so as often as I can I'll try to build up a store of knowledge that will allow me to make a wisdom check when the situation seems unclear.  My DM feels that someone with a high wisdom ought to have a good sense about the motivations of NPCs or the best way to go about getting help from people and organizations.  Past that, my high constitution will mean I'm not afraid to enter into hard, difficult to survive places.  I won't be foolish about preparing for icy or sweltering climes (and my wisdom will give me checks there) and my constitution will give me a good, tough ability to hunker down when the weather and the terrain turns sour.

I'm not planning on influencing a lot of people with my charisma, at least not until I'm in a position of power, because I don't feel I want to lie much with this saintly man of the cloth; but I do want to be left alone.  A high charisma will tend to be treated among the better citizens and as I intend to keep myself clean and well-groomed, the charisma ought to help me if the rest of the party (or strangers in the area) start acting like a bunch of louts.  My strength is at least still above average ~ but not too much.  I'm going to be getting into the fight until I amass enough spells to be an effective caster, so I'll need good armor.  I guess I can take on a fair burden, too, since I'm going to be human.  That makes me a big, burly member of the party among these elves and half-elves, but I don't mind carrying a good, solid load.  If I move at a rate of 3 hexes per round, I should do all right.  Not a chaser, but good enough to stand in front of a mage.

Now, that intelligence.  My DM usually does intelligence checks when players take an action that is flat out stupid; I think with my experience at the game that I'll take my chances.  'Course, I'm won't be the brightest penny in the box where it comes to tactical games or giving orders; guess I'll let some other lead the army we accumulate someday, else I'll walk them straight into a rout.  And with my dexterity, I should be fairly deliberate about keeping my feet on firm ground, walking on the side away from the cliff and vying for knowledge that doesn't require much hand-to-eye coordination.

That, finally, gets us around to why minimum stats for classes are a good idea.  But, this post is already pretty long.  I guess I can manage that for another day.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Podcasting, WPIIA and Other Things

Yesterday, I finished my guest appearance on a Point of Insanity Podcast, specifically Whose Podcast is it Anyway, which will turn up on Friday, August 18.  It was a lot of fun and I got to talk about some of the things I've lately posted about, along with slamming the company behind D&D, adding some talk about Sasquatches and about Russian history.

Listening to Chad, the Podcast presenter, talking about his relationship to the Reagan era (he turned 13 when the Wall came down), I was astounded by the knowledgeable distance between what he knew and something that was happening while I was a conscious and politically active, self-aware individual.  I had turned 16 before Reagan was elected; I watched that campaign, my first (politically interested Canadians watch both the American and British festivals, as we are affected by both), and I remember very clearly what sort of things were being said about Reagan.

None of those things are being said now.  Reagan is the go-to president when people want to talk about a Republican who did bad things but was basically of good character.  Pundits will often say, "Reagan did this or that thing, but at least he was aware of the consequences of what he was doing." Like being aware makes it all better.

Reagan was awful.  Worse than that, he was a joke.  But the Iran-Contra thing had been going on all that summer and making Carter look like a worse joke.  Reagan "got the hostages out," which he totally did not do, as anyone conscious was aware of at the time, but all that has disappeared into dry history books no one reads.  I have lived long enough as a political animal to watch history being rewritten by the winners.  Totally rewritten.

However, as you will hear, Chad seemed to find my few comments about the Afghani war and the coming down of the wall as interesting ... and that makes me wonder about how much raw history is being lost on a daily basis as people who remember first-hand what was going on in the 60s, 70s and 80s are passing away.  History seems a mystery to most people anyway, since the education system (in Canada too, as much as anywhere) is shoving it aside in favor of social culture and social responsibility.

I can't say that the world "needs" me to settle in and write a ton of history, giving my take on things like the Reagan years or what it was like to listen to stories about Carter's brother or Gerald Ford's falling down stairs, both of which were so important a week couldn't go by without either being parodied or discussed.  There are hundreds of thousands of history students who are already doing this, not to mention a major cultural effort of writing the history of everything via Wikipedia.

It reminds me, however, that people don't read history.  If it happened before we were born, it seems to bear little interest for us; why care, everything that matters must have happened after 1964, the year I was born.

(I know, you think that everything that mattered happened after 1976 or 1983, but you're wrong)

Of course, we're willing to make some exceptions for things like Kennedy's assassination, that McCarthy thing and Nazis, but we don't want to get crazy, right?  Not that anyone understands the fifty reasons why people would want to shoot Kennedy, or who McCarthy was or what started that witchhunt, or that Nazis were not just bad guys in Indiana Jones' movies, but hey, we're just interested in the important stuff, right?

I think it is a little sad.  I could do a podcast every week where I did nothing but talk about history, potentially with time to look up small details on the net just to be sure I got the details right ~ and what's odd is that I'm sure that some people would really like it.

But my experience with Chad reminded me what I really need to make a podcast work: someone to ask me questions.  I'm great at answering questions off the cuff.  I enjoyed doing the bits with my daughter, but the issue there was that she steadfastly refused to be a set-up person for me (something about not wanting to be in the shadow of her father or some silly thing).  I've played around with just talking, but it feels ... weird.  If I'm just going to chatter, I'd rather write.  I write better than I chatter.

I'd love to do more podcasts.  I've looked, and I've had some others who have looked, but we haven't found any podcasts who are willing to step up.  If anyone has any ideas ~ or connections, which is better ~ I can write the introductory email.

And if someone wants to dig in and go head to head with me, I have the means to record us and I have the guy to edit us (if he's still willing).  So let me know.  Could be fun.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Button

I'd like to say that I've accomplished something with these posts about game inefficiency, rigidity and agility, but the truth is we've come to the end of the track and I have to wonder what's different.  Personally, I feel vindicated on a lot of fronts.  I had begun making my world with an agile design idea decades before agility was even proposed (was talking with a business manager yesterday who made the same remark with regards to his own practices).  I have always felt that the game world had to be rigid, with an understanding that the rigidity had to be improved or made more flexible, if it wasn't producing a good game.  And why wouldn't we want an inefficient game?

The main change for me these last two months is that I now have design industry terms to describe things that I've always thought of in fuzzy dimensions.  I can now use the term and point to the book and say, "Aha, evidence."  Yet on the whole I'm not looking at my world design differently and thinking about things I have to change.

It was a good idea that I began sketching out the various details of the sage tables for all the classes, even if the work wasn't actually done.  That was certain a more agile method: but I took that step to feed the needs of the online campaigns and I did it before starting this long series.  However, I have to point to that as the last radical step I've made in my game design.

On the whole, however, I feel this has been more of an exercise than a reaching out.  I think I could review all the research, now that I'm on the other side of it, and pull these posts together into a single book; I could go off on a number of side discussions that would flesh the book out to 40-45 thousand words.

What I can't do, though I've been trying, is to figure out a way to help others with the metaphorical blank piece of paper that faces them.  I've just finished the last post by saying that a better adventure is not going to make your world better.  Fact is, a quickly produced, well run adventure will be as good for your players as any long-term effort would produce.  Arguably, long-term efforts encourage us to lose our focus about what makes the running good.  The longer we spend making an adventure, the more we become attached to the plan and the less awareness we retain for the players: remember, plans are important but collaboration is more important.

If you approach your players with an adventure that consists of four straight up fights, with treasure, a little personality for the enemy combatants and a strange terrain to give the fights some verve, you will do better than if you created twenty or thirty well-described, mostly empty rooms, carefully crafted and laid out in extraordinary detail.  That's because YOU, your brain, your capacity to make something interesting, is a hundred times more complicated and involving than any lines you can draw (or manufacture out of paper and styrofoam).

An elaborate dungeon drawn with the elegance of three dimensions, figures, shading and color, to scale or upon a scale that provides aesthetic, makes an interesting artwork and that has positive influence over how your players perceive you and your world.  All that effort does produce a level of awe that can work for you.  But very little of that effort actually applies to a game more profoundly enhanced through the imagination.  Artworks help where matters of location, proximity and player planning applies; but it doesn't turn the monster to flesh: it is your heart and your ability to emote that makes that so.

That is so unfair.  We've been sold on the ideal that having the materials and then putting them together in these shapes will make a great game.  We've been duped into thinking an imaginary fantasy game can be plugged together with mechanical movements: read this paragraph, wave your hands, show the players this picture, throw this die and everything else will just be wonderful.

It isn't true.  And we've all known it isn't true, from the beginning, when we first began running games with a pit in our stomach and a doubt that we really knew what we were doing.  But we went on doing it in the way we were told because that was all we knew.  That was what everyone else was doing.  And anyway, a little more often than not the players seemed to be digging it.  But we knew when we started DMing that it seemed like a false front, like we were faking it, hoping eventually that the feeling of faking it would go away and we'd know what we were doing.

But it didn't.  And this last six weeks has been about why.  The goal is to recognize that the effectiveness of play isn't in the tools or the modules.  It isn't in the dice or the clever role-playing.  It isn't in backstories or rules.  It's in the fundamentals of game design.

Success is in understanding, yourself, how to find a way to make the players feel that they might not succeed but that they might succeed at the same time.  To find that button and then to keep hammering that button until your thumb gets raw.  Everything else is just gravy.  Helps you find the button and helps you hammer it a little harder ... but it won't push the button for you.  And in the final analysis, you don't actually need any of it. We could play, you and I, without any dice, without character sheets or maps, in the dark, trapped in a coal mine, if we had to.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sea Routes in the British Isles

Something light-hearted and simple, then.  Back in 2014, I published a group of sea trade maps.  I'd like to draw the reader's attention to this one that was posted then:

Since I finished creating the map of Britain, I've been working on an updated sea route map that would include the British Isles.  It looks like this:

Frankly, I'm glad this is done.  It is one more step towards adding England to the trade system, a long, involved process.  I've updated the map on my Google Drive, for those who have donated $10 or more to my Patreon account.  Thank you all again.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Change, Not Plans

This brings us to the last of four posts about the principles of agile design.  Throughout this mini-series within my larger agenda of game building and game design, I have stressed at each point the need for the DM to be flexible and player friendly when running the game.  This is actually the fourth tenet of agile: that it is more important to respond to change than it is to follow a plan.

This does not say that a plan is a bad idea, or that it is not useful to the campaign, but the plan must never, ever, take precedence of a DM's willingness to change the processes in order to improve the overall value of the game.

At the end of the last post, I talked about players making changes to plans and how we should just go with it, as much as we can.  The only way this can be done is if you are prepared to Welcome Change.  Change isn't something that must happen; change itself will not make a campaign better.  But if change happens, or there is reason to believe that is should happen, then don't step around it or fear it.  If your players are pushing for changes to be made in your style, it is because they believe those changes matter; if you dismiss that push for change, you are also dismissing the players.  You're trying to go it alone.  This will not help you keep players in your campaign.

Understand, however: welcoming change means that your campaign won't be what you expected it to be when you started running.  As a community, we pay a lot of lip service to games being collaborative experiences, but we are well aware that DMs are rarely prepared for their precious campaigns to suffer change at the hands of a bunch of players.  DMs have worked long and hard on their campaigns and they're just not prepared to let a gang of peasants with torches and pitchforks burn it all down.  I don't deny that a DM's campaign matters ~ but I do resist the characterization that players have no idea how campaigns work or how they ought to work.

This sense of "what do players know?" is less a rational conclusion than it is an invented crutch that DMs use to impose themselves above others.  Virtually every game I have ever run included two or three other DMs, at least; with the first games I played, in my youth, every player was a DM, because we were all trying.  It is silly to claim that these DMs don't know anything about how RPGs work.

The problem with the campaign first, players second notion of game design is that it fails to comprehend the primary goal: a working game, in which unique experiences are made possible, followed by excitement and gratification.  To obtain this, the campaign, whatever it is, has to take a second seat.

At no time does this say the planned campaign won't survive in some form!  It may have most of the features that it possessed in the original planning stage.  Those changes that are made can be rescinded if they don't work out, while other changes that are made will be appreciated and kept.  If the party works together as a group, and if the DM shares power with that party, that together the whole will continue to look for new and better ways to work together.

Here is the hardest truth that every DM and Player has to come to grips with.  Processes won't make your game better.  No matter what the adventure, no matter what the game system, no matter what form of RPG we play or how hard we play it, we won't improve our game mastery through practices or procedures.

We can only improve our games by having principles and values that promote a strong and friendly collaborative process.  People matter.  Not adventures.  If you wished for the best module in the world, it still wouldn't make your game any better ~ not unless you've learned how to believe in what you're doing.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Collaborate at Arm's Length

In the last post, I talked about "agile design." Some readers will be aware that two posts ago, I also talked about agile design.  With this post, I'm going to talk about agile again.

I have just finished saying that as DMs, we need to communicate more with our players about what they want, in order to determine what can work and what won't work in a campaign.  I spoke about recognizing that fog of war is a secondary consideration to addressing the greater issue of determining how players respond to ideas and experiences they have in our campaign.

For those of you willing to take the risk of letting players choose the nature and species of their next encounters, it will not be long before a series of problems will emerge.  Players will not want the circumstances between themselves and success lengthened or frustrated by inefficiencies.  They will want the path between themselves and total power to be completely efficiently; if they feel they're in a position to negotiate, they will argue for efficiency every time.  And just so we're on the same page, understand that "efficiency" for a player will be: a) as little risk as possible; and b) as much reward as possible.

If we take a stroll through a casino anywhere, and issue a questionnaire among the casino's players, asking what the casino could do to increase their personal satisfaction, the players would answer: a) make us lose less often; and b) make the pots that we can win larger.

Yet strangely, though no casino does this, not even in tiny incremental degrees, players keep showing up to participate.  What does this mean?

It means that what the player says and what the player does are largely unrelated concepts.  Players always want the best possible results for their investment.  That is why they are players, to get the best possible results!  Of course they have to get them through game play; but if we think about it, "game play" is a question of finding the best possible path towards game success.  Players see questionnaires and investigations as potential angles that can be played, just as the rules of the game can be played.  The DM might show weakness; if the DM does, then I want to be first in line to exploit it.

So where it comes to managing our players and learning about them, we need to be wary.  This is not a contract negotiation. This is a way of turning the players onto their backs like turtles, then seeing how long it takes to right themselves.

In the end, we're going to give the players what we want.  We want inefficiency in the rules, requiring innovation.  We want a sense of doubt where it comes to risk-taking.  But we can't do that well unless we investigate what makes the players innovate or take risks.

However, though we don't want to negotiate, we do want to collaborate, and often.  Collaboration is the key to the game universe.

I was recently watching a video on Dark Souls and The Stanley Parable, which some of you will have played.  I'm not going to talk about that link (and, quite honestly, I could beat Mark to death with a hammer and feel nothing at all). Rather, I'll link this video instead, which talks about why circumventing the narrator is central to the value that we find in games that enable rather than deny:

"If you go on a rampage in Dark Souls and kill every last friendly NPC you will actually unlock whole new side stories and dungeons and bosses.  This is not simply emergent or procedural, this is intended play.  If there is crafted content on the other side of your misbehaviour, then it's not actually 'misbehaviour' ~ because it turns out that murdering everyone is also the correct way to behave. What a game intends for you to do includes not only the things the fiction of the game tells you to do, but also the broader things the game permits you to do."

With this sort of understanding, we are right through the looking glass.  This describes the awfulness and poor game thinking of pre-writing a "story" that players need to pursue.  In fact, anything that the players do has the potential to just create another story, which a fast-moving DM can manage by evaluating, changing plans in mid-stream and then moving forward to build a new adventure with agility, this being, agile design that interprets what the customer, er user . . . ah, I mean player, what the player wants.  Sorry, sometimes I get confused when I realize that everything that designers are doing to satisfy people in the real world is exactly what we as DMs need to do in our game worlds.

That evaluation that I mentioned, along with the changing of plans (or iterations), can't be done without collaborating with the player.  Take a very common situation, one that seems to aggravate story-DMs no end.
DM: an old man moves up to the party and begins to speak.  "I have something very important to tell you," he begins.
Typical Munchkin Player: I kill the old man.

There.  The story is ruined, right?  And at this point, the DM usually shouts, "You can't do that!" or "Why did you do that?"  To which the player answers, "Seemed like a good idea."

Is the story done?  No.  Is this even remotely a problem in a flexible, inefficient role-playing game? Absolutely not.  The player has just stepped up to the tee and sliced the ball into the woods.  In golf, that means taking a penalty.  In an RPG, the penalty is simple:

DM: Three men hear the old man's shout as he dies and rush out of the nearby doorway. They see the player with the bloody sword and the old man dead on the ground.  "He's a murderer!" they shout, immediately reaching for a group of ax-handles that happen to be collected in a nearby barrel.  They approach the party intending to use them as clubs.

Chances are, the munchkin is now happy.  Fuck the story, fuck the old man, none of that matters.  The player is getting what the player wants: a fight.  But let's make it a hard, brutal fight, one that nearly ends in the player's death, but at the same time promises a chance that the player will win.  We're not punishing the player, we're merely supplying a reasonable penalty that promotes a certain inefficiency to the player's survival.  That's all.

We could ask, "Do you find stories and old men relating them boring?"  If the answer is yes, we could move on other strategies and techniques to introduce adventures.  We could stretch ourselves and be creative.  We could give the players what they want.

Giving it the way we want to give it, obviously.  This is a collaboration, not a service, not submission.  As designers, we'll try to make the player happy; but we're still going to be the ones designing this thing.  Players can be made to understand that.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Adventure Writing

The last post has established that we're looking for a certain type of structure, which ensures both inefficiency and success at the same time.  But how do we identify the tolerance level that the party has for either.  It's true that there isn't one tolerance level for every possible party, but that's no really helpful.  We probably won't be running with a lot of different parties and, in any case, our presence is going to skew different parties towards the same median.

The strategy for everyone to find that median is the same, no matter who is running or who is being run.  That strategy is experimentation ~ and those who won't employ it are bound to be weak or abusive DMs.

Unfortunately, most of us, the writer here included, were initially trained to think that an adventure design worked like writing a book.  We write the whole book, every inch of it diagrammed and sorted, and only when the book is complete do we dare present it for our players to try out.  Frankly, this is pretty stupid. We keep talking about how the game is supposed to be a collaboration between the DM and the players, but then we send the DM off to work in total isolation while we wait like an audience of critics waiting to tear pieces out of the DM's solo design.

We do this because this is how modules were designed.  Modules have to be designed like this because they are products, in which all the collaboration takes place between the fabricators prior to handing them over to the manufacturer.  There is NO collaboration between the maker of modules and the DM, and then no collaboration between the DM and the players.  It is passed down the line with the message, "This is as good as it gets; if you don't like it, tough."

DMs then try to rewrite the module a little (still solo), to tailor it for the players, but we still don't have much recognition of the players tailoring the module for themselves.  At best, we have this desperate ploy: a very old story describing what most DMs do when they're noobs and don't know better.  It goes like this and it's familiar: the DM has nothing planned, or has something planned which doesn't seem very good.  The players speculate about what might be up ahead; the DM hears this and thinks, "That's great!  I'll do that!"

Is this what I mean by the players collaborating with the DM to make an adventure?  No.  But we'll come back to this.

We also pre-write adventures because we think this is the only way to make them complicated and detailed, as in what happens with room #4 is very important when the party gets to #7, which has the key they need for room #9, and so on.  We can call this The Myst Method.  The Myst Method sucks.  DMs don't realize this, but they're very tiresome to play over and over and, in the end, the players will soon become savvy enough to recognize what's happening.  The key in #4 might as well have a tag on it that says, "This is very important, test it out in every hole you come to going forward until it fits in something. Thank you, the Dungeon Master."

It's a bigger surprise if the key doesn't fit anything.  Except that we're still going to spend an hour of game time trying the key a thousand times.

Finally, we pre-write adventures because we don't understand design.  We think this is proper and correct. We think this is how stuff gets designed.  It used to be, but now every company that still designs that way has been destroyed in the market place by competitors who employ what's called "agile design."

Let's not get into the particulars ~ there is plenty of stuff online to read if you're not familiar with the concept. You may realize the last post was about agile design.  At present, I want to make a point about what agile design is supposed to accomplish.

Writing the module in one go is called "waterfall design" ~ the old way of doing things.  Basically, the river goes along, goes along, goes along, then it falls off the cliff and there we are.  All designers used to do this; there were no focus groups brought in to question the design, no testing of the product (and no requirement to test it) and sometimes, no assurance that the product would do what it's supposed to do.  Movies and other artworks, for the most part, are still being made this way.  That is why so many of them suck.

Agile design is what's called "iterative."  This means that it is done frequently and repetitively, until what is desired is achieved.  Agile was invented for the software industry, which absolutely died on the vine when attempts were made to design it in a waterfall fashion.  Now, everything is released in bits in pieces, testing it and testing it, relying very heavily on the user to fix what's wrong and improve the experience.  Video game designers release an alpha version of the game, sometimes updated once, then a beta version.  The beta version is then repeatedly released as it is tweaked and fixed, relying on players to identify what must be fixed.  Finally, all the problems have been supposedly identified and the game is released.

Games are much more complex now, with fewer bugs, because of agile design.  Back in the day, when waterfall design was normal, programs were not only crippled by bugs (rather than a few annoying things, like now, it used to be impossible to use software without continuous work-arounds for bugs), there was nothing the company could do about it.  There was no proper effort to account for what had to be changed; this meant that "fixing" a program meant bringing in a completely unfamiliar team, who would have to start on the code from scratch.  It was easier to burn the code to the ground and start again.

When designing your adventure, you want to be agile about it.  But this will immediately produce the response, "How am I supposed to keep stuff secret from my players if I'm sharing the design?"

Easy.  Don't keep it secret.  Have you not noticed how game are played now?  Consider titles like Don't Starve, Oxygen Not Included and Subnautica.  Knowing what the adventure IS won't change the doubt players have about the die, their ability to overcome known enemies or steadily explore vast realms.  RPGs have vastly over-emphasized the importance of fog, as though this is the entire game, when in fact fog is a very small feature.

What is the best part of not knowing?  It produces stress from uncertainty.  But if you know you're equally matched with an enemy, does that reduce stress?  If you know the enemy's intentions or the enemy's abilities, does that detract from the player's level of stress?  No.  It doesn't.  Not in my experience (which I can prove with text from game campaigns, if necessary).

The only time knowledge removes stress is when it tells the players they are certain to win or that they are certain to lose.  Once a player is convinced of either, the game is lost.

So come clean.  Sit down and say to your NEW players in your NEW campaign, directly, that you're thinking of giving an encounter.  Warn them that it is coming.  Tell them, before it starts, before their characters see it, what the encounter is going to be.  See how they react.  Ask them how they are reacting. Test them.  Then, after the encounter is run, find out how they felt about it.  Ask them, was it too hard?  Was it too easy?  Don't take their word literally, as they will skew their responses with a desire for survival, but ask!  You can't learn anything if you don't ask.

Tell your players that you're planning to put a small, deserted keep on the edge of the nearby forest. Don't wait for them to ask a bartender: just tell them, "You happen to know about this deserted keep."  Ask them how big they want it to be.  How much treasure.  How many monsters they'd be willing to fight to get that much treasure.  How many they think they'd have to fight.  Make a joke that it would have to be a lot more and see how they respond.  Tell them that if they can't handle that many monsters, maybe they're not tough enough for the treasure, and see how they respond.  Assure them that there is a keep.  Assure them that there is treasure there.  What the hell.  You think it's some big secret?  You think they don't know you're going to put treasure everywhere they go to fight a monster?

Stop hacking off your left arm to spite your right.  Stop doing this on your own.  Get your players to tell you want they'd like to fight, give them a chance to do it, assess the effect and then start to adjust your plans with the knowledge you've gained.  Obviously, you're always going to be the most creative one in the bunch.  You have the least to lose and you're getting experience watching them.  This isn't rocket science ~ but it is about being forthcoming.  You're not going to make a good game by yourself, not yet.  Someday, but not yet.  You've got to learn first how to design before locking yourself in a room and designing.

Sufficient, Unsatisfying

Amid the crickets, I feel we're ready to start our campaign and bring the players into an adventure.  We should have a structure in mind that describes the game's rigidity.  We should have an idea of how we want that game to function, and what sort of user experience, or player behaviour, that we want.  I have taken the time to explain some of the pratfalls that are bound to result, regardless of your game's rigidity, and I have suggested strategies to overcome those troubles.  Finally, I have thoroughly argued that what we're seeking is a degree of inefficiency in our system that will encourage gameplay, through player/user efforts to overcome obstacles and achieve success.  Going forward, we need to better understand how we want to make a game that, at that same time, blocks success and enables success.  Good games are those that find the sweet spot between these two goals.

In starting the campaign, we have two hurdles to overcome: we need a structure that will enable the players to have characters, and we need some sort of interface with which the players can interact.  This latter, we will call an "adventure."

Note, I did not say, "roll" characters.  Rolling characters is a process, not a goal.  We need characters; we don't actually need to roll them randomly.  We could as easily assign every player the same value digits for all their characters, absolutely balancing the abilities of every player with every other player.  We're not going to do that ~ but I want the opportunity to ask, why aren't we going to do that?

Rolling the character randomly produces a user experience; we need to ask ourselves, what is that user experience and what do we want it to accomplish?  The players, naturally, want to roll high, because they feel that the desired user experience is to have high numbers.  If we follow some proponents of user experience, those who have little understanding of human behaviour, they would tell us to ask the players what they want and then give them what they want.

That is 100% inconsistent with creating inefficiency.  Where it comes to rolling up characters, and any other random die roll, we must make the players understand that there is no promise of any kind that they can have what they want.  They must accept, we tell them, to take what they can get.  This may be hard.  Sometimes, we will slice the ball into the woods.  It sucks.  Everyone hates it.  Golfers break clubs.  Players swear. That's how it goes.

However, in making a random character-generation system, we want to ask ourselves, how hard do we want that system to be?  We can, of course, make it harder and harder until one player in a thousand can produce the highest possible score in our character-making "mini-game."  We can also, however, adjust the mini-game any way that we want, to produce the highest possible experience for both success and failure. That is in our power.

To take D&D as an example, we can force the players to roll 3d6 for every stat.  We can force them to roll the stats in order.  Or we can enable them to roll 4d6 and discard the lowest die.  Or we can settle on a standard that the total die rolls must be higher than a certain average, or that the six rolls must include, at minimum, a 15 and a 16, or a single 17 or 18, or else all six dice must be thrown again from scratch. Whatever method we use, we must make it clear to ourselves that our goal is to be inefficient, not efficient! We don't want everyone to do super-well.  But we don't want to be excessively inefficient.  We don't want players participating with scores so poor they may as well turn their weapons on themselves.

As well, we want that inefficiency to be more or less consistent across all the participants.  We want bell-curve results.  At the end, all the players should possess results that make them feel sufficiently successful, without necessarily completely satisfying them.  This is what most game-makers interested in creating user experience totally misunderstand.  They presume that the goal is to satisfy wishes or to force excessive hardship.  No.  The goal is to compel the player to look at the final result and then do what humans do: find things that they can put a silver-lining around, to make them thankful that at least that stat came out all right, because this will make them identify with a character that isn't perfect.

Super-bad stats will be hated.  Super-good stats will soon become tiresome.  Both will create an experience that will bear little resemblance to a human person (and yes, elves and dwarves are still psychologically human) and will therefore fail at their purpose: to create a character that will meaningfully interact with our adventure.  Meaningfully?  In a manner that makes the time spent in the campaign worth the player's interest.

We have the same problem with every other facet of the character's creation.  Appearance, special abilities, defenses and equipment must be managed in a fashion that produces enough, but not great, results. Appearance should correspond to abilities, but not in an extraordinarily fixed standard: just because someone is super-strong doesn't mean they always fit one stereotype of how we envision super-strong. Special abilities should be weak and insignificant in the beginning compared to upgrades that will come later. Defenses should be expensive to have, maintain or endure, until such time as the player acquires greater skill and actual in-game experience.  The best equipment, on the whole, should be too expensive to buy; players should always wish for something they can't have easily, as this gives them direction.  In short, we're looking to make disappointment a standard, in order to make achievement measurable and, again, meaningful.

If the character generation system we're using doesn't achieve this, get rid of it or fix it.  Poor character generation will produce a bad, bad user experience and the game will fail.  If we do have a good system, we must be very careful how we mess with that system.  Any adjustment has the potential for moving out of the groove we want ~ with the understanding that, in a complex game like an RPG, it can take weeks or even months to see solid evidence of that fail.

Most often, as a DM, I will be the first to see it; often it will take much longer for the players to understand that it's happening.  For a certain type of player who is enjoying the benefits of having too much power and not enough inefficiency, the resistance against adjusting the rule can be very high and can produce considerable resentment.  Always, however, I can see that the given player is isolated in that resistance; the rest of the party, not having the benefit of the flawed rule, will support my decision.  But it is always a difficulty to rein in the power, which I have to do by a series of clawbacks and adjustments, since full-on stops are hard on the player.  I prefer to avoid getting myself into these situations, but as someone who tries new rules all the time, now and then problems arise.

Sometimes, the whole rule has to be thrown out, much to everyone's discontent.  There's nothing for it, however.  The game's integrity is compromised and, overall, that inefficiency is lost.  Eventually, if the correction isn't made, the campaign will die.  Often, the campaign is already dead, and there's nothing I can do.  This has happened to me online several times now.

That is because, I believe, my standards for inefficiency in a r/l campaign don't work as well when applied online; and yet, I refuse to change, because I don't want to offset my groove.  It is more important to me, at this point, that I keep with my principles than I make things easier for online players just because the campaign moves more slowly.  That may be unfair and unreasonably inefficient.  I am able to recognize that.

If I am wrong, it is because I am cherishing processes and game structure, whereas I should be more concerned with the player's needs and the dynamics of DM-player interaction.  I should be flexible enough to tune my game to the difficulties of the online interface.  Were I able to do so, I would experience less online troubles, my games would move faster, the campaigns would die with less frequency and I could probably streamline the amount of prep and work that I'm doing.  For example, I could get rid of things like CLO, encumbrance, the daily temperature and wind conditions, tactical combat [indeed, all combat] and an excessively detailed world, substituting instead more interactive role-play and puzzle mechanics. That is what I see other DMs doing who play games with participation through chat or skype.

I see online games, however, as a way to increase the degree of my complexity, and online players as guinea pigs upon which to test new rules an ideas.  My goal is not to create the best possible adventures for players, but to create the best possible game design for me.  My online players understand this, and as such give me exactly as much interest as they care to, since they can't feel the visceral pleasure of truly playing in my game.

This cannot be your goal, if you want your campaign to be successful.  I can get new online players; you, most likely, cannot replace the r/l players you have.

Therefore, you must find the sweet spot in your sufficient-yet-not-satisfying structure.  Your players must be close enough to satisfaction to deal with being unsatisfied, while feeling sufficiently empowered to believe that one day they will be satisfied.  If either of these are a fail, your campaign will fail.

Once you've built the characters, you must approach your first adventure in this same manner.  What counts as the bare-minimum amount of equipment and abilities to count as "sufficient"?  The closer we are to the bottom of the scale, that still enables the players to believe they can succeed, the better.  What counts as the bare-minimum amount of achievement that will count as "satisfying"?  We can always give huge amounts of satisfaction, but we have to always be thinking of the next adventure.  If we pile on the amount of satisfying once this adventure is accomplished, then our next adventure won't meet the pre-requisite of sufficiency that we want.

We always want the players to be hungry.  When they're not hungry, we want to be sure they will be hungry again, and soon.  Not right away; they should enjoy their full bellies a little while.  But soon, we want them to be feeling that maybe it's time to be off again.

These are the boundaries in which we are making characters and chasing adventures.  The actual rules and processes we create must be slaves to this principle of individual experience and effective interaction between players and the campaign.  Rules and processes are important; but they are NOT why we play the game.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

7 Rules

I don't want to get locked into an eternal deconstruction of what a rule is, but I can't help thinking it would be a good idea to tackle some kind of closed, simple system, since making/deciding upon rules is of considerable relevance.  Therefore, building on the examples that Charles Angus proposed, on the right we have an example of a straightforward set of rules on a subject that none of us are experts, where none of us really need to be experts: The Pennsylvania Association of County Fairs 2017 Blue Ribbon Apple Pie Contest.

Seven simple rules: #8 is the organizer's contact number.  I'd like to go through these and explain their relationship to role-playing, as "types" of rules we want to be sure to include.

Let's start with Rule #2, what Angus had called a window dressing rule (see, I can change my mind!).  He had mentioned perhaps there could be another name for it and I agree.  Window dressing is a method of displaying items in order to attract customers; it is the front facade of a business, or the "face" of the concern.  Therefore, we can see these as face-rules, rules that are there to ensure a sense of fairness and consideration for the participants, who in the case of the apple pie contest don't want to see a single pie sweeping multiple counties this season.  Such a thing would be unattractive, and we want the face of the contest to be attractive for entrants and audience alike.

Face-rules in RPGs can plausibly include JB's calling out of the drawn character rule, it can include rules for player behaviour, it can include the mannerisms of the DM and the general feel the game has for the participants as it is being played.  The rule has a meta-purpose, outside the particulars of making good apple pie.  It can even include alignment and backstory.  The pie contest includes the rule because it wants an audience; an RPG can include face rules because it serves as a fan service for players, because it bolsters the confidence of the DM, etcetera.  I will just say that, if the strict desire it to determine what is the best pie, bar none, then rule #2 really serves no specific purpose.

Rule #1 addresses the participants, that all must be from Pennsylvania.  I think this fits the mix between the face of the contest and the "gameplay" of the contest.  Let's call it a "prescriptive" rule.  It addresses a specific point: do we want to know what is the best pie produced by the field of entrants, or do we want to know what is the best pie in this county in Pennsylvania?  Clearly, the goal is the latter.  This is a contest, a comparison, so what we compare is important.  But again, it does not apply to apple pie making.  It has elements of a face-rule.

I'll suggest that an RPG equivalent would be no player-vs.-player.  PvP is, technically, an application of the RPGs rules, but it fails to address what I would consider the point of role-playing ~ that being an exploration of the world and survival in that world.  Some might feel that not being from Pennsylvania isn't fair; but given the intent of the contest, to promote Pennsylvania, for Pennsylvanians, I don't think it matters.  Some players may feel that denying PvP is also not fair.  But since the purpose is to promote good game-play and character creation and survival, PvP is unacceptable.  It really depends on what sort of games we want.

(Angus' example was that a baseball player must slide towards the base and not the baseman; I think this is also a good comparison to PvP, or any other rule that encourages disrespect from one player to another, such as players who insist on heading off for solo-adventures while other players are expected to wait)

Rule #7 is a "protocol" rule: if you want to play, get your paperwork in oder by such-and-such a time, delivered in such-and-such a place.  Participants who want to play RPGs need to come to the right place at the right time, have their characters, keep a readable character sheet, answer accurately and politely when asked about their ability stats, armor class, carried equipment, special abilities and so on, as much of this information can't be reasonably managed by the DM.

We could go one farther and argue that players have a responsibility to know what the rules are that apply specifically to their characters, so that they should have read the spell descriptions of the spells they want to use, know how much damage their weapons do, know the penalties for ranged weapons, know how much illumination a torch gives and how long a torch lasts, since these are all written down.  There is absolutely no excuse for not knowing these things, though players usually rely on the DM to check the pages when the matter comes up.

It might be worthwhile coming up with some basis on which to hold players accountable: but the most meaningful consequence exists in the pie contest protocol: if you don't adhere to the rules, you can't play. Expressed that way to a person who simply refuses to get it together may be the only way to make it clear to that player that less is not tolerated.  I have expressed as much when having a lot too many players, as carrying their baggage for them gets to be too much.

Rule #3 and Rule #4 can also be seen as protocol rules: to be judged an apple pie, it must BE an apple pie; and it must be presented in this manner so that it can be thoroughly examined and dealt with, without having to worry about the owner's plates (all of which are considered disposable).  I'm going to make a distinction, however, and call these "descriptive" rules, in that they describe what sort of game we're playing.  This is not a meat-pie contest.  This is not about the participants having control of the pie once it has been handed over to the judges.  Once it is given, it is the judges' pie, to be used in whatever way is necessary (admittedly, this could be spelled out more clearly in the rules, but it is traditionally understood that in pie judging contests the pie is going to be eaten).

The same applies, then, to the Dungeon Master.  This will be at least a 60% game of Dungeons and Dragons, or Rifts, or Palladium, or whatever game we're playing.  It does not need to be traditional but it does need to be recognizable as an RPG, with certain characteristics that would fit what an RPG is intended to be.  Is it a game or is it an acting performance?  That needs to be clear.  Further, it needs to be clear than once the game is entered upon, all the participants, including the DM, must adhere to the rules of the contest, er, RPG, they have supposedly decided to play.  Cheating is not permitted, nor is any notion that it isn't cheating if the cheating isn't known.  We have to define the game we're playing and then play it!

Rule #6 is tricky.  I presume the rule exists because participants became over-creative in their attempts at making apple pies and began to create a hazard for the judges, who obviously did not want to be forced to eat pies in which the little buggies were not properly killed.  That is fair. In the same way, a DM should not be required to adhere to player behaviour that goes right outside the bounds of what the game expects.  At some point, a player's creativity reaches a point where it has to be asked, "What game are you playing?" Let's call this the anti-"wtf" rule.

For example, I once had a player kill himself in a jail because he decided his "character" had let the fictional townspeople down, blaming himself for a conspiracy that was getting the upper hand, and that the only proper response was suicide.  wtf.  A player decides that wealth, experience and other game-driven goals are no longer important, and refuses to pursue any accumulation whatsoever, deciding that "the game" is to go from town to town and just talk to people, because character-to-NPC interaction is satisfying enough.  wtf.

Anti-wtf rules may vary considerably from campaign to campaign; what I consider ridiculous or boring may work very well with another DM.  Still, an RPG isn't about the player rewriting the game, however much they may strictly adhere to the rules as written.  If a player begins to act in a manner that calls the DM's reasons for participation into question, the player needs to be corrected or booted from the campaign.

Finally, Rule #7.  Here is the meat of the campaign.  The player is submitting an entry, with recipe, being entirely open and above board about who they are and their willingness to participate.  On the flip side (unstated in the pie contest rules but implied by the organizers' credentials), the DM is committing to running the game fairly, examining the ingredients, the quantity of the player's participation and the preparation of the pie, er, character.

This is, after all, a contest.  And organization must happen.  The DM, by demanding all this of the player, is responsible for providing a contest that the players want to win.  A hard contest, with meaningful rewards, where most of the participants expect to be losers but which the prospect of winning is of sufficient magnificence that losing is not that important.  To achieve that in an RPG, the actual process of playing the game (making the pie, with the scores of attempts that the pie-maker will employ at home before landing on a pie that they think might win) must be compelling, exciting, trustworthy and fulfilling, so that even the losers think on the way home, "That was great!  I'm going to enter next year!"

We can call this a "game rule" ~ and it is the only rule I'm going to discuss moving forward.  I'll concede and accept that there are other rules, but these other rules don't drive the contest or the game.  They address periphery concepts, they help contain aberant behaviour, they contribute to focus and suggest a proper attitude, but they are NOT the game.  They are the rules we make so that the game can actually be played.


Thank you JB, for your fine examples, and thank you Charles, for suggesting the template.  I had an idea of what I was going to say here but your idea was better.  The idea for the pie contest came from this UX convention speech.  And yes, I know I only created six categories, so the title of the post ought to be "6 rules," but I'm letting the pie contest dictate here.