Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Busted Game Theory

I was having coffee with Friend Ian yesterday, and discussing the future of Dungeons & Dragons, and perhaps more importantly the history of Dungeons & Dragons and some of it’s queerer idiosyncrasies. In particular, we got onto the topic of the current development and the slight air of panic we’ve picked up on from the folks at Wizards of the Coast. Our conversation had turned from more general game design discussion to more focused questions about where we are in the development timeline. I know people have playtested the game. Is it done? Is the playtesting they’re doing to fix the niggly wiggly bits? Or do the folks at WotC really have no idea what their players want?

This brought us to an interesting point about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, something that has been sitting in the back of my head for a long time: Fourth Edition solved every problem in 3.5, and people didn’t like it. I liked it, but I’m not the game’s core audience, really. I’m an aficionado, the sort of person who revels in GNS theory and Glass Bead Games. I deeply appreciate great design, and Fourth Edition – at its core – had that. And, y’know, it solved every problem that 3.5 had.

Admittedly, this came with its own stack of problems, but D&D Fourth Edition is easily the cleanest design in the game so far. It was basically… perfect. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, really. Nothing about the game was dangerously exploitable, it was balanced and clearly written, there was some real thought put into how each part of the game was going to interact with every other part. It did what it did perfectly, but for some reason that made it feel “wrong.”

Maybe games don’t have to be perfect. Maybe they shouldn’t be.

RIFTS is an incredibly popular game, and it is – to be entirely fair – garbage. Really. Really really. It’s system is trash. Even the world, the world that is tossed around in the infamous RIFTS-only argument “I don’t like the system but I like the world” is a derivative hodge-podge of speculative fiction tropes taken from all over the nerd spectrum. Objectively, as a person who has had a lot of fun playing RIFTS, looking at the design of the thing is painful. The attributes have nothing to do with the rest of your abilities, how good you are at fighting is determined by a skill which is entirely different from how the rest of the skill system works in the game, the skill list is hyper-specific to the point of obtuseness, there is a type of damage that could kill one section of player characters with a single shot but barely scratch another set, armor has two different sets of rules depending on what sort of armor you’re wearing… It’s brutally bad.

Other great examples include Exalted, Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu. None of these games are particularly well designed, but they are incredibly popular with players all over the world. So… Why?

Games with design flaws, games that have large, glaring errors in their rules systems, provide certain psychographics of gamers a way to leverage those system problems to their advantage. These are the Johnny players of the role-playing game world, and they represent a fairly hefty chunk of our playerbase. And everyone has a bit of that in them. Even if you’re not looking to min-max your fighter to the Nth degree, everyone likes finding those synergies and occasionally getting to exploit them to do something that is particularly cool with the game’s crunchy bits.

And very well designed games don’t tend to offer a lot of exploits like that. The best designed games in the industry right now are likely Greg Stolze’s Reign and Steve Long’s HERO. Neither game really offers players a way to break the system in half. Which is sort of what you’re aiming at with your game. Neither game is as popular as RIFTS, either.

And maybe this is something we’re missing right now. Maybe it’s part of the Lonely Fun of a roleplaying game system, figuring out how to beat the rules into submission. Maybe, sometimes, you need to hack at bits of system until they scream. Maybe, sometimes, the fun of the game isn’t so much about the game, but about That Cool Thing you can do that shows off how clever you are. Maybe it’s about fixing a broken game and making it playable because you enjoy the challenge of making a bad system work (which is, I think, why most game designers get into the industry). Maybe, sometimes, the roleplaying games that are the most fun are the ones that aren’t very good at all, because you get a chance to make them good, and that’s what you’re really looking for. And maybe, sometimes, the old busted game is just more fun to fuck around with.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Flavor in Game Design

I read an article talking about how Monte Cook is wrong to suggest that giving a dwarf with an axe a +1 bonus to hit because dwarves love axes. Story, the article said, is not tied to giving bonuses for stereotypical racial traits, and in fact make it more difficult to build characters outside of those stereotypes.

Except, the person who wrote the article didn’t even really bother to read what Mr. Cook was saying. Cook wasn’t at all talking about story. He was talking about flavor, and those are two very different things. Story is certainly a part of flavor, it is the thing that carries the weight of a game’s narrative, whether it’s a role-playing game, a board game or chess. The story of chess is very simple, and mostly implied, but it’s there. More important, though, the flavor of chess is has nothing to do with that implied story. Knight, pawn, bishop, queen. Each piece is named for a figure of medieval Europe.* This flavor is divorced from the story of “You are a commander. You meet an enemy on the field of battle.” The two are not one and the same. See, I could make a game with all of the pieces from chess with a totally different story, but it would still have chess-like flavor because of the nature of those pieces.

Flavor allows us to make assumptions about a game. If there are dwarves in your setting, there are some concessions you need to make to people who know what dwarves are. In some cases, you’ll need to strictly adhere to the tropes of the dwarven people. In other cases, you’ll run counter to those tropes. But in both situations, you need to be keenly aware of what those tropes are, what people are expecting from your inclusion of this flavor, and how to cater to or subvert those assumptions.

What Cook was suggesting was not that story should be dictated by +1 bonuses to hit with axes. What he was asking is “Should the fact that dwarves stereotypically like axes be reflected in a game’s mechanics? How closely should the tropes of the epic fantasy genre affect the design of a game with that genre’s tropes?” And it’s a fair question, one that begs to be answered by Ron Edwards. System matters, and how a system ties to the flavor of the game is an important point in how the game will be played. The systematic concessions made to setting determine the texture of the game, how it feels in your mouth while you’re chewing on it. This is one of the biggest reasons I’m worried that the Assumed Setting of Fifth Edition D&D will be the Forgotten Realms. I believe that any system designed to specifically cater to the Forgotten Realms as a setting will by necessity play more like Second Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

And while I love me some Second Edition D&D, I’m not really looking to play something that feels like it right now.

So, to answer Cook’s question: Should flavor determine mechanics? Yes. How much should it do so? As much as it makes sense in your design. I mean, I don’t know what you’re cooking up yet, so I can’t really speak to any given set of mechanical curiosities. I don’t even know if we’re looking at a top-down or a bottom-up design yet. In a top-down design, it makes a lot more sense to try and capture the flavor of the game mechanically. In a bottom-up design, you’ll be looking much more closely at how you can crow-bar the flavor to the kick-ass mechanics you’ve built.

Which actually makes me wonder how much thought has gone into the overall design philosophy this late in the game’s design. From what I understand, there is already a playtest-ready version of the game floating around. If we’re confused about fundamental design questions regarding the depth of flavor’s influence on the rules, color me slightly concerned.

*Yes, even pawn. Etymologically, it’s linked to the word pedonem, or foot soldier, in Anglo-French.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Con Merchandizing for Lyndsay

One of my favorite stories about convention merchandising is about Robert Khoo. Whether or not it’s true, I have no idea, and I’m telling a half-remembered story that I read many, many months ago, but the general idea went like this:

Scott Kurtz has been to a lot of conventions, and when he’d show up at one, he’d arrange his books on the front table in chronological order. People would buy lots of the first book and lots of the most recent, but a lot of the stuff in the middle was skipped. He figured people just wanted to start the series from the beginning or pick up the new product, but fewer people wanted to jump in during the middle and just assumed that’s how his sales would always work at conventions.

One of the many years he was placed next to the Penny Arcade booth, Robert Khoo rearranged his books. He came over from his booth on the last day of the convention and set the books up chromatically. Suddenly, books started flying off the shelves that hadn’t sold more than a couple of units at a convention. When sales started to die wind down again, Khoo came over and arranged them based on the size of the piles, making a pyramid of books. Again, there was a surge in sales. The third time he came by, Kurtz asked him “What are you going to do when I’ve only got three books left?”

“Don’t worry,” Khoo said. “I have a plan.”

When people began to filter out of the con for the final time, Khoo came over to find a smattering of books left on the shelf. He propped them up in such a way as they were facing the direction of the people leaving. When the convention was over, Scott had sold all of his books for the first time ever.*

What’s the moral of this little merchandizing fable? The key to good table marketing is to try new things.

What spurred this little storytime? The lovely GeekyLyndsay** of Dragon Chow fame is going to a convention and doesn’t want to use a table to display her dice bags. Which makes all sorts of sense because, if you’ve ever tried to find an effective merchandizing solution for dice bags, you know that tables, display cases and shelves are basically the worst possible furniture in the world. The problem comes from the nature of bags, I think. They defy shelving units, their strange shape making it damned near impossible to display the full awesomness of the bag. If the bag is lying flat, it looks boring. If you have them propped up so you can see their tops, they lose any sort of clear identifiable qualities. Nothing about this is good. So to be able to display dice bags more effectively, you need to think outside the box some.

My most fervent suggestion is to have people carry them around the con and show them off. This comes with two really key components: product champions (those people who love your stuff and want to sell it for you) and mobility (because they don’t have to be at the table when they’re showing off the bags). It gives people the opportunity to touch the bags, to interact with them, and more importantly to interact with people who like them. Each individual carrying the product provides a testimonial to your product’s awesomeness, and they can go into more detail about what makes your bags more kick-ass than the bags getting sold by Random Steampunk Booth #7. Rather than let the bags speak for themselves on a personality-free shelf, you have someone there to sell, not only the product you’ve made, but the services you’re selling (I believe Lyndsay is still doing personalized bags, for instance). Product champions are incredible people, and I think Dragon Chow has enough fans that it would be easy to convince a number of them to run around with sacks of them.

Another option: Hang them from the ceiling. Get some very long twine and some clothes pins and make a display of dice bags that can be seen from across the convention hall because it’s the only display that has a billion colors and goes all the way to the top. Color-code them so that people look over and see a blast of colors that go from floor to ceiling, and make sure you’ve got multiples of each bag hanging around at the bottom of the display so that you can sell them without having to climb an enormous ladder to get them.

Even more option: Make designs out of them on the cubicle walls of your booth. Use clothes pins to make an attractive design or pattern that will have people stopping in to at least check out what the hell it’s made out of.

Yet more option: Have people wear the bags as hats. Give a free bag to any customer who wears their bag on their head for an hour for you acting as a de facto booth bunny.

One More Option: Get a bunch of spinning racks, like the ones they use at bad jewelry stores that are made of slat-wall on a spinner. Put hooks in, and hang your bags in an easy-to-navigate pattern on the floor. This option is quite a bit more expensive, obviously, but the spinning racks would belong to you, and you could use them at other conventions in the future.

There are a lot of ways to merchandise your dice bags without putting them on a table or arranging them on a shelf. The key, though, is to keep switching things up, keep giving people something new and interesting to look at. Rearrange by color, size, shape, number of items, popularity of items, difficulty in making the product, scent or taste, whatever. Just keep giving people a reason to come back to your booth every day (or make your booth come to them) and make sure that when they do, you pounce on them like a half-starved tiger on a helpless gazelle. Because customers love the attention.

*For the record, I have no idea whether or not this story is true. I also don’t know if it was actually about the people I think its about if it is true. But it seems like a very Khoo thing to do, and I don’t at all think he’d mind if it was added to his already expansive Legendary Character.

**This article was edited to reflect the fact that I am terrible at alternate name spellings. With a name like Kristoffer, you'd think I'd be more conscious of stuff like that.

SCP Foundation

Every once in a while, I get the idea in my head that I should do some monster research, that I should go trawling the internet looking for some inspiration for a really over-the-top creepy monster or something. Then I remember that the SCP Foundation exists, except that I can never remember what it's called because "The SCP Foundation" is a terrible fucking title for anything. I keep mixing up the letters. Or including letters that don't exist. Because it doesn't even stand for anything. 

Today on Reddit, someone posted a link to it, and I decided to keep it here, on my blog, for the rest of forever. If you've never taken a look at the SCP Foundation before, it's very cool. Reading over a few of the entries now, I'm a bit taken aback at the amateurishness of the writing, but the idea behind the project is intensely awesome.

Basically: Catalogue a list of monsters from the point of view of the scientists tasked with keeping them safe and safely away from the public. Each entry has an item number, an object class, a list of special containment procedures, and a description of the thing and its abilities. It is written something like a field report, without embelishment or hyperbole. Just "This is the thing. This is what we've observed it doing. Don't touch it with your hand or it will wither your flesh to the shoulder and you'll die from necrosis a week later. Also, it's a five year old girl." 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

For the Birds

For over four years, I’ve kept a pair of lovebirds in my home, Merry and Pippen. Yes, I am aware of the spelling mistake, but that’s how I’ve always spelled his name in my head. I don’t write about my birds often.

Lovebirds, for the uninitiated, are not ideal pets. They are incredibly loud, quite messy, and they don’t take easily to training. Complicating matters was the fact that these two birds had a long precedent of not having been trained before I got them, and they were incredibly closely bonded to one another. See, a singular lovebird is a charming, personable friend. Two lovebirds form a clique, and if you happen to lack feathers, you are not invited to any of their best parties.

Still, they have filled my apartment with chirpings loud enough to occasionally wake the neighbors and a lot of strange, distant affection for a number of years, and I appreciate their company.

Today, Pippen died in my hands. Though I had only had him for four years, he was a pretty old lovebird. The previous owners had him for some seven years, and the average lifespan of a lovebird is between ten and fifteen years. So, to the best of my knowledge, he was eleven, and had a good run of things.

The event has made me understandably a lot upset. I was really fond of the little guy, and he was by far the friendlier and more intimate of the birds. He was a total sweetness and I really enjoyed having him around. I’ll miss him.

So… What does this have to do with games and gaming? Not too terribly much, actually. I considered making this an existential blog post about how death works in the current D&D cosmology, and while that would certainly be a decent article, I think it’s a bit much for me at the moment. I also considered writing a post about how the deaths of player characters are handled in role-playing games (a phenomenon categorized by “Oh, he or she is dead. Moving on to the next room”). Which also has some meat on it. Or I could talk about the deaths of animal companions in D&D, something we typically neglect as nothing more than a rules inconvenience. Any and all of these would be great articles. And maybe someday, when I’m not feeling like a sack of smashed assholes because my bird just died, I’ll get around to writing them.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Six-Page Dungeons & Dragons

So, in the first iteration of this project, I made a one-page version of Dungeons & Dragons. It is a version of D&D that would fit on a single page in a novel, or roughly 250 words. This time, I wanted something a little more robust, something that could cover as much of the D&D game as I could while still restricting the amount of space in which I had to design. What I came up with was a version of the Dungeons & Dragons game that fits on a half-dozen novel-sized pages. You can find it below.

Interestingly, much of the space is taken up by character creation. I’m coming to believe that character creation is one of the most important aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons game, and that a great deal of that importance comes from customization, and a good deal of that customization comes from what the characters are able to do. Anyway, as per the last version, I’ll let the design speak for itself.

Creating a Character

Attributes: There are six attributes in this game. Each relates to a different sort of challenge that your character might come across during the course of a session. Those attributes are: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. The scores for these attributes are determined randomly by totaling the roll of three six-sided dice.


Attribute Modifiers: Each attribute has an “attribute modifier,” which is the number added to rolls when you are making a check. If your attribute is between the values listed in brackets, your attribute modifier is equal to the value listed to the left of the brackets.


(16-18) +2
(13-15) +1
(9-12) 0
(6-8) -1
(3-5) -2


Choose a Class: There are four classes in this game, Cleric, Fighter, Mage and Rogue. Each is good at different sorts of things. Pages 2-5 describe each class in depth.


Buy Gear: You have 100 gold with which to buy gear. There is a chart with sample equipment on it later.



Clerics are priests and healers.


Hit Points:

· First Level: 1d6+Constitution Score

· Per Level: 1d6+Constitution Modifier


Bonuses: None


Armor and Weapons: A cleric can only use non-bladed weapons, and can wear any armor.


Turn Undead: With a prayer, a cleric can make undead creatures disintegrate. A cleric can destroy up to 1d4 of these creatures per every two levels.


Healing: With a prayer, a cleric can heal the wounds and illnesses of their allies. A cleric can heal 1d6 hit points, plus an additional hit point for every other level, starting with level 2.


Monastic Knowledge: Clerics know a lot about a lot. Ask a question to which you would like to know the answer and roll a d20 (+1 for every other level, starting at the second). If the result is 18 or higher, you have read something about your query, and can (sort of) remember it.




Fighters excel at stabbing things to death. Their abilities and bonuses reflect this.


Hit Points

· First Level: 1d10+Constitution Score

· Per Level: 1d10+Constitution Modifier


Bonuses: +1 to hit every two levels, +1 to armor class every two levels, +1 to saving throws every two levels


Armor and Weapons: A fighter can use any sort of armor or weapons, including magical varieties.


Feats: Every second level, beginning at level 2, a fighter gains a “feat.” A feat is a once-time-use resource that allows the fighter to do something that would be impossible for a normal person. Spending a feat provides an automatic critical hit (double damage), and may have lasting effects in the battle at the Dungeon Master’s discretion.


Critical Hit: When a fighter rolls a natural 20 to hit, it automatically hits and deals double damage.




Mages use magic spells and call on the forces of darkness to defeat their foes. They are generally quite weak.


Hit Points

· First Level: 1d4+Constitution Score

· Per Level: 1d4+Constitution Modifier


Bonuses: +2 to saving throws every two levels


Armor and Weapons: Mages can only use staves or daggers, and cannot wear armor.


Spells: Mages get two spells at first level, and an additional spell every other level starting at level 2. A spell is a once-a-day resource that allows the mage to call on the forces of magic for aid. The effects of the spell are largely left up to the DM, but the more powerful the mage, the more powerful the effects of that mage’s spells should be. Spend some time fleshing out what your mage can and cannot do with your DM. Your spells should have descriptive names.




Rogues are excellent at finding hidden things, disarming traps, and fighting dirty.


Hit Points:

· First Level: 1d6+Constitution Score

· Per Level: 1d6+Constitution Modifier


Bonuses: +2 to hit when the enemy has been hit by another ally. +2 to hit if you act before your enemy in the initiative order. +1 to hit for every third level starting at level 3.

Find and Disarm: Rogues are very good at finding hidden objects. Declare that you are searching the room and roll a d20 (+1 for every other level, starting at the second). If the result is 18 or higher, you find any hidden compartments, doors or traps in the room. If you find a trap, you may roll again, and a successful roll disarms the trap.


Fighting Dirty: When you hit an enemy that has already been hit by one of your allies this turn, you deal an additional 2d6 damage.


When making a check: Determine which attribute makes the most sense for the check you are attempting to make. Roll a d20, and add the appropriate modifier plus half your level. If the result is greater than or equal to the difficulty number set by the DM, you succeed. If it is lower, you fail.

Initiative: At the beginning of combat, all combatants roll a d20+Dexterity. Each participant acts in order of highest-to-lowest initiative score.

AC: Your AC is equal to 10+(Dexterity or Constitution, whichever is higher)+(armor).

Combat Turn: During your turn you may move up to six squares (or 30 feet) and either attack or use one of your class abilities.

Death: When you reach zero hit points you die.


Going up a Level: When you reach a number of experience points equal to your current level multiplied by one thousand, you go up a level. Your DM will tell you how much experience you’ve gained for any given session of play, but you should usually gain about 10% of the amount of experience you need to gain a level during a session.








AC +4



AC +3



AC +2



AC +0












Battle Axe



Hand Axe






Bow & Arrows

1d6 (range 100ft)

10gp (arrows 1gp)


1d6 (range 50ft)



Misc. Gear



Ten foot pole


Ten days iron rations




Hammer and pitons


Rope 50’










Flask of Oil




Torches (10)


Wine (1 liter)



Magic Items


There are two types of magic items: simple and wondrous. A simple magic item is simply a magically enhanced version of a typical item of the same type. So, a magic sword is just a sword, but better (typically providing a bonus to strike or damage). Magical armor is just armor, but better (providing a bonus to AC). For every bonus of +1 to either hit or AC, or +1d6 to damage, a magic item costs 1000gp above and beyond the price of the item itself.


Wondrous items are items that are incredible in some way, like a sack that is bigger on the inside than the outside, or a ring that makes you invisible (and then calls the ire of the Dark Lord of All Evil upon you). Those sorts of items are much more rare and generally priceless, the creation of magics far beyond the understanding of current mages. You will typically only find wondrous items in the treasure troves of monsters, and the DM will tell you what those sorts of items do.




Monsters have stats something like those of a player character, but much more simplified. The only things you really need to know about a monster are its AC, hit points, its bonus to hit, and any sort of special abilities it might have. Below, you will find a few monsters you and your friends can fight.


AC 14
Hit: +1 (1d6+1 damage)
Hit Points: 10
Special Abilities: Unless pounded into dust, a defeated skeleton will rise again in 1d10 rounds with 2 fewer hit points each time. A skeleton can cause a character to fear it, making that character run away as fast as it can every round for 1d4 rounds unless the target makes a saving throw.


AC 16
Hit: +2 (1d6+1 damage)
Hit Points: 5
Special Abilities: A goblin can make a saving throw as a reaction to being hit. If it makes the save, it is missed instead.


AC 12
Hit: +2 (1d10+4 damage)
Hit Points: 15
Special Abilities: Orcs feed off of violence. If an orc kills a character, it may make an immediate attack against another creature beside it.


AC 18
Hit: -1 (1d4 damage)
Hit Points: 1
Special Abilities: Each round, if a kobold is still alive, it can call for help. 1d6 more kobolds come to its aid.


AC 5
Hit: +1 (1d4 damage)
Hit Points: 10
Special Abilities: If the ooze is hit by a magical weapon, another ooze appears beside it.

The Simplest D&D I Could Make

I made a one-page fantasy role-playing game.

Today I tried to do the impossible and got it mostly okay. I wanted to boil down Dungeons & Dragons to its most absolute basic. I wanted to design a version of the game that could be printed on a single page in a standard-sized novel, or 250 words. I think I did an okay job of it. I haven’t play-tested it, I haven’t even bothered to edit it, really. I just wanted to answer, for myself, what the essence of Dungeons & Dragons is. This is obviously super-simplified, and it would take at least a half-dozen pages of equal size to really sum up what Dungeons & Dragons should be, but this has helped me find my focus for what I think the game really is somewhat.

For instance, the game below doesn’t have any races in it. No elves, dwarves, halfings. Just the four core classes from the Basic Boxed Set. It also doesn’t have any feats, skills, backgrounds, themes, or other extraneous bits of crunch that make the game take up more space than it absolutely needs to. Are these things important to playing Dungeons & Dragons? I don’t think so, not really.

Still, I’ll let the game speak for itself some.

D&D in One Page (250 Words):


Roll 3d6 for each of: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Constitution. These are your attributes, or attribute scores.


Beside each write: (3-5) -2; (6-8) -1; (9-12) 0; (13-15) +1; (16-18) +2. These are your attribute modifier numbers. They are important.


Choose a Class: Fighter, Mage, Rogue, or Cleric.


Fighters have 1d10 plus their Constitution score hit points. They get to add half their level (and at least 1) to their rolls to hit enemies and their armor class.


Mages have 1d4 plus their constitution score hit points. Choose a number of spells (you or your DM decide their names and effects) equal to your intelligence modifier plus half your level.


Rogues have 1d6 plus their constitution score hit points. They get to roll a die to find traps or secret doors, or disarm traps. They add half their level to this roll.


Clerics have 1d8 plus their Constitution score hit points. They can heal an ally for 1d6 + half their level a number of times per day equal to their Wisdom modifier.


You have 100 gold with which to buy gear. The DM determines prices for gear, and what that gear does.


Rolling Dice: Determine which attribute makes most sense (DM chooses) and roll a d20 and add that attribute modifier. If the result is equal to or greater than ten (or in the case of combat, their AC), you succeed. If lower, you fail.


At 0 hit points, you die.

I don't own Dungeons & Dragons, and I’m making no claim to their rights, here. Obviously the game written above is only my interpretation of the simplest, most incredibly basic version of the game that can be distilled from thousands of pages of work by people far smarter and cooler than I am.

But if I were to build a modular game, it would be from a skeleton like this. It’s basically compatible with First Edition D&D, it has no mechanics that conflict with Third or Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons (with some tweaking for difficulty class and hit point total  stuff), and it’s about as elegant as a system can get. Give me a few days and I’ll pound out a 6-page version of the same game, as modular and simple as I can.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Essence of Dungeons & Dragons

What makes D&D special?

Monte Cook’s job is not an easy one. While damned near any fan of Dungeons & Dragons could claim that designing the next iteration of the game is a dream job, what is currently expected of Mr. Cook and his team is nothing short of miracles. They need to design a game that goes to the very core of what the Dungeons & Dragons Experience is, and what makes that so difficult is that the D&D Experience is so many different things to so many different people. Boiling the various and sundry forms of D&D down to its basest essence is a practically impossible thing to do, but in order for Fifth Edition to deliver on its promises, the design team is going to need to.

So… What is the Essence of D&D? What makes Dungeons & Dragons the game it is? What is the thing that makes it distinct, different, amazing? Because honing in on that is going to be the thing that determines whether this next edition succeeds of fails.

Usually my blog is filled with piles of text pontificating on a point. Today, I’m asking for you to let me know what you think. What is the essence of D&D?

Let’s Talk About 5-E-X

One of the things that seemed to stick out to people in my article regarding sexism, racism and ableism in the future art of Dungeons & Dragons was my mention of the Book of Erotic Fantasy. This was one of my favorite books during the 3.5 boom, because it offered something that no one else was doing with their products: it was offering a sex-positive look at the role of sex and sexuality in role-playing games, specifically in Dungeons & Dragons. It was, admittedly, campy, over-the-top, and deeply, deeply silly, but it was the sort of rare thing that doesn’t happen often enough in our hobby. It was a revolutionary book because it was an activist book.

Now, I’m sure the people who wrote it didn’t write it with activism in mind, but the fact of the matter remains it was a book about sex in a genre of books that never want to talk about sex. And that, to me, is a brilliant example of activism at its best. And it kicked up a hell of a fuss when it came out, enough so that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast had to include a provision against books like it from coming out ever again, effectively banning sexual content from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. It was this ban that I was speaking to in my article, the fact that there are actually provisions in the GSL wording that preclude the inclusion of sexual content from Dungeons & Dragons books, but no such provision exists for hypersexualized depictions of women in those same books.

There are two solutions to this problem, and I think one of them is more workable than the other. The first solution is to insist that any inclusion of sexualized imagery for one gender must include equally sexualized imagery for all of the other genders. This is, sadly, impossible, on two fronts: there is no way you could make a sexualized image for every gender that exists, and there is no such thing as a hypersexualized male. Argue all you want that Conan the Barbarian is a sexy nearly-naked dude, but he’s not hypersexualized, he’s just a badass. Western culture doesn’t have hypersexualized images of men (with one possible exception, and it’s deeply debatable). They simply don’t exist, not in the same category that hypersexualized images of women do.

The other option is to strike down the rule and allow sex back into Dungeons & Dragons. Now, that may not seem like a solution at first glance, it certainly wouldn’t change the fact that depictions of women in role-playing games are disproportionately sexualized, but that change allows the designers, in-house, freelance and third party, to open the floor for discussion. It would allow designers to discuss the role sex and sexuality have in our games, and it would actually serve to point out some of these issues within the context of the game text itself.

With the rule as it currently stands, there is no way to address the subject of feminine objectification within the text of the game. That is left to people like Tracy Hurley and myself, who speak to a limited subsection of D&D players. My traffic on this blog maxes out at about 300 people a month. Even reaching the few thousand who read my Open Letter, even reaching the tens of thousands that Tracy reaches on a regular basis, barely scratches the surface of the D&D community, as there are literally millions of people who play this game. By being able to openly talk about sex from within the game itself, we have an opportunity to reach, y’know, all of them.

But then, that’s a part of the problem for the guys behind the desks at Hasbro. By talking about sex from the vantage of the game books themselves, we’re actually talking to a huge swath of players about a thing that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t really want to be associated with. Sex is one of the major American cultural taboos, and while that is certainly working to keep the patriarchal oppression of women’s bodies alive and well, it also means that challenging it comes with the potential for damage to your reputation. As the company that makes Monopoly, Hasbro can’t really have one of their imprints running off and talking about anal plugs and nipple clamps when there are kids reading. Moreover, the threat of speaking directly to the subject of sex in role-playing games is so great that Wizards of the Coast felt it necessary to keep other companies from doing it in association with their product. Which is how we got to where we are now.

The question, I guess, is why? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in D&D? Why is this a discussion we can’t have openly and publically? The short answer is that it might make some people uncomfortable. There are people who just don’t like talking about sex and sexuality, and it’s those people that Wizards of the Coast is catering to by implementing rules that restrict companies from publishing works that include those topics. There are even more people who don’t want to include sex or sexuality in their games, and I understand that and empathize with it. But that’s no reason to keep that product from being published. I’ve never actually used anything in the Book of Erotic Fantasy. I read it, and I think it’s incredibly valuable to the culture of the hobby, but my games don’t tend to have a lot of sex in them, and the games that DO have a lot of sex in them usually Fade to Black before anything graphic happens. But that’s a choice players should be making on their own, as a group and individually.

Someone asked me on Twitter today what ESRB rating I would give Dungeons & Dragons. My response was that the ESRB is deeply flawed for vilifying sex over violence. Which is a rubbish answer, so I also said “PG-13 with options up to NC-17,” which has nothing at all to do with the ESRB, so it’s still a rubbish answer, if slightly more useful to the topic at hand. Dungeons & Dragons is a game chock full of fantasy violence, but there is rarely any graphic content. You never get to see the fountains of blood pouring out of your enemies, or have to hear the sickening crunch of their bones under your weapons, so most of the violence has a distinctly clean PG-13 feel to it. And while the women are generally clad to appeal to men, and are posed ridiculously to ensure that they are showing off their secondary sex characteristics, they’re never naked, the sexism is generally pretty tame, and there is never any talk about sex or sexuality at all.

And that’s what they’re going for. That’s what they want, because it’s the age range in which their game will sell the best. 12-40 year old men are Wizards of the Coast’s key demographic, and they need to keep that younger group in mind when putting their books together.

Third-party game designers don’t. They’re able to take risks. They’re able to say things that the people at Wizards of the Coast can’t. And while I’m certain WotC got some nasty feedback regarding things like the Book of Erotic Fantasy, I can’t see anyone blaming the company for that product existing, and I can’t think that having books like it is at all a detriment to the game itself. Talking about sex is something we need to be doing as a community, because doing so opens the door to talking about gender role issues at the game table. And that, I think, is a pursuit worth risking some reputation over.

Why WotC Shouldn’t Sell PDFs for Old Editions

And if They’re Any Good at this Game, They Won’t

I’ve seen this bandied about pretty well all week as people are talking about D&D Next on the twitter- and blogosphere: there is a set of players who would like Wizards of the Coast to release PDFs of First, Second and Third Edition material because that material is basically unavailable through any other medium. The argument goes that by putting this material on the internet, Wizards of the Coast will be making money that they would not already be making, and that it doesn’t cost the company anything to have those books available for download, so… why not?

Those players are obviously not in the games industry.

Wizards of the Coast isn’t putting out PDF versions of older modules because, as a business, they want to make money. Now, you might think that putting PDF versions of an old game wouldn’t cost them anything, and in direct costs that’s probably almost true (you still have to pay for the space to hold them, the developers to make the store, the man hours to make the file transfers, more man hours if in-house PDFs of that product don’t already exist, maintenance, quality control, customer service…). It’s not a small undertaking, for certain, but it would be worth it because of all the money they’d make, right?

Except that they’ve already got a horse in this race, and that horse ain’t First Edition.

Every dollar spent on the PDF downloads is a dollar that effectively isn’t going to the books that Wizards of the Coast is paying a lot of money to print right now. By providing that material in the form of a downloadable book, they’re competing with themselves, which is about the worst thing you can do in business, especially if you’re competing with your own flagship product. It’s the same reason that WotC could never support both D&D Fourth Edition and D&D Third. If people were contentedly buying the edition with which they were most comfortable, they would be less likely to try the new edition, the edition that had just finished costing them many, many dollars. If they decided to cater to the OSR guys and put out First Edition books online, those players would be happy with that. And having happy customers is awesome, except when it means that those players are so happy they’re not buying your other, newer, more expensive products.

Now, obviously they’re not going to get all of the OSR guys to buy into Fourth Edition D&D, but if there were a readily available source of First Edition books on the market, the number of OSR guys they managed to convert to the new system would drop dramatically, and that’s really, really bad for their hot new game. In order to ensure that the new edition is going to get as much push as it can, Wizards of the Coast needs to do it’s best to eliminate the previous edition from shelves. This usually works by taking the game out of print, reducing the quantity of new books to zero while the demand for those books eats up all of the available copies. It’s a strategy that works, because once there are no 3.5 Player’s Handbooks kicking around, when it becomes obvious that you won’t be able to find the resources you need to play the game you’re most familiar with, the chances that you will try a new game (perhaps a game with the same name?) increase in a huge way.

Pathfinder sort of gummed up the works on this, though. One of the reasons Pathfinder has done as remarkably well as it has is that it continues to put our resources for a game that people are more comfortable and familiar with. It’s a strategy that’s been used successfully by Kevin Siembieda for decades, and it seems to be doing really well by Paizo. See, when someone is looking for a 3.5 Player’s Handbook, and there’s no such thing on the market, I can say “You’re not going to find one, and if you do, you’re not going to find one cheap. Maybe you can your crew should give Fourth Edition a try.” Except that, now, if someone is looking for a 3.5 Player’s Handbook, I can point to the much more familiar system in Pathfinder.

It’s interesting to note, though, that the name still matters. I have a lot of people come in looking for 3.5 Player’s Handbooks that won’t even consider Pathfinder because “It’s not D&D.” Obviously this comes down to a lack of understanding on the part of the customer, because Pathfinder IS D&D, but without that name recognition, selling the same product in a different wrapper loses something. For those players, it is still easier to sell them on the Fourth Edition of the game.

If there were 3.5 Player’s Handbooks kicking around, I wouldn’t be able to sell Pathfinder or Fourth Edition to anyone who wanted a 3.5 Player’s Handbook. Both games would sit on my shelf for a very, very long time because people are generally hesitant to try something new without being pushed.

The same general principle applies to putting D&D First Edition books on the internet. If that material is available to you, what is going to push you to try Fifth Edition D&D? Curiosity, maybe, but if there is anything about the game that you dislike, it is much more likely you’re going to go back to downloading the version of the game you play now, and Wizards of the Coast will have just spent a lot of money printing book-shaped paperweights.

Now, this isn’t meant to convert you. It won’t. If you’re a die-hard fan of one version of D&D over all others, knowing that there’s a damned fine business reason that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t want to sell you old editions isn’t going to get you to rush out and buy the next one. But it’s important to know that what you’re asking for is the business equivalent of self cannibalism. Sure, you stop the uncomfortable feeling of hunger for a while, but only at the cost of eating your right arm…

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Expanding Thoughts on the Death of Fourth

I think I might have caught some people a little off guard with my statements about skills in my breakdown of why I believe Fourth Edition failed as a commercial undertaking. I suggested that, while a unified skill system was a great idea for Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I felt that the implementation of that same system in Fourth Edition D&D was a huge mistake. Here’s why.

Fourth Edition D&D plays a lot like First Edition D&D in that the focus of the game is on combat encounters. Fourth Edition departs from First Edition in its handling of non-combat aspects of the game. Where First Edition took a very hands-off approach to the less-than-fighty bits, Fourth has evolved the intricate skill system put in place during the Third iteration of the game, and I believe that’s problematic in how the game delivers on its focus. See, if you’re looking for the essence of First Edition D&D, if your goal is to build a game that feels more like First Edition than any edition since, you need to make the players’ decision-making count more than their skill checks.

See, when you’re playing a game of First Edition D&D, you don’t have skills to fall back on, and you’re forced to go through dungeons terrified of everything. You have to poke the pile of stones because it might be the home of a carrion crawler. You have to make sure you’ve explored every nook in the room, or you might miss out on some keen treasure, and that’s not as simple as rolling a perception check, that requires describing what it is you’re doing, and if you miss something, the DM has every right to just sit on his or her hands and giggle. This paranoia, this creativity, is part of what gave the First Edition game a lot of its oomph. Soon enough, you had a party decked out with ten foot poles and a bunch of critters to check the halls for you (we preferred gnomes, because we’re bastards).

The only character in a First Edition game with skills was a thief, and oftentimes those skill scores were so incredibly low you couldn’t depend on them. If you had the ability to try picking a lock two or three times, your DM wasn’t rolling often enough on the wandering monster tables.

Fourth Edition’s skill system, in particular the Skill Challenge system, allows players to bypass fun in favor of more dice rolls. I have had a few situations in which Skill Challenges were genuinely good, but the vast majority of the time, they’re just multiple-success skill checks with some extra description attached, and no one’s really having a good time because the real fun is the fightin’.

There is no compelling reason why the skill system as it currently exists in D&D Fourth Edition needs to be in the game at all. In Third Edition, it was solving a problem, and the multitude of skill checks in that system made sense and worked with everything else we knew about the game. In D&D Fourth Edition, it seems to be a dated holdover from a previous game, tacked on with little regard for why it’s even there.

The problem that was solved in Third Edition was that, in a system that could do absolutely anything, a system needed to exist that would accommodate non-combat issues as they cropped up. In Third Edition, they invariably would crop up and skill checks made for a solid tool to help deal with them. Third Edition was a game without borders, really, a game where you could move from world-spanning politics to dungeon crawling in the space of a half hour, and you’d need a diverse toolbox to be able to appropriately deal with that.

When D&D Fourth Edition shifted its focus to a more combat-centric model, it lost much of the need for an intricate and detailed skill system. What you did between fights was rarely as important as the fight itself and would often feel like unnecessary filler, the boring bits between stabbing and more stabbing. The thing that held the stabbing together. The skills that would have made for an interesting addition to D&D Fourth Edition were removed because of their seeming unimportance: profession and craft skills, things that would have given your characters something worth doing outside of their kill-stab-rest-kill-stab routine, were left off the skill list. Why? Because those skills didn’t really contribute to what the focus of the game was meant to be: skulking around dungeons, beating up monsters and taking their stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s room for skills to exist in D&D Fourth Edition in a meaningful way, I just don’t think that the system they used was the system that best fit the return to dungeon-crawly goodness. It felt like an afterthought, and while they certainly streamlined the system and fixed some glaring issues with it, they were still using the system in an environment in which it made very little sense.


My problem with feats in Fourth Edition D&D is that, compared to powers, they are utterly and completely forgettable. There aren’t many feats that stand out and go “Hey, look at me, I’m something flavorful, interesting and complex that will help you define your character in a cool new direction,” which is a direction that would have made them far more playable, would have opened more design space, and would have made the system feel like a natural addition to Fourth Edition instead of a tacked on Third Edition afterthought.

Feats suffer from much the same problem as skills in that they were brought into Fourth Edition design with no real concept of where they were going to fit, how they were going to make the game better. In many ways, feats read like generic powers that are… well, bad. Some of them are so necessary you’d might as well not make a character without them (the expertise feats), while others are so distinctly bad that I sincerely believe they were included to pad the page count.

In Third Edition, feats were what powers are now. They were the cool tricks that made your character distinctive and awesome. In Fourth Edition, there’s really no need for them. Even necessary feats like the expertise feats can be fixed by adding a ubiquitous +1 to hit somewhere in character progression, and then we don’t need them anymore. There isn’t a problem in Fourth Edition that feats (as they exist) fix, and that makes them feel lame-duck and dated. If feats had been interesting, flamboyant expressions of character, they would fix a deep problem Fourth Edition has, but as they are, they’re flat, boring and entirely underwhelming compared to their big brother, powers.

A better system would have been a point-buy Merit and Flaw system built into the core of the game. These have existed in role-playing games for decades, and they provide an interesting direction for character personalization that D&D Fourth Edition was desperately hoping for. The problem comes, again, from the strange homogeny that Fourth Edition sought in its design strategy, the idea that nothing in the game can break the rules. Merit and Flaw systems are ripe for character optimization junkies, because they provide tools with which to fiddle for the best possible combination of Merits that Rock and Flaws that Don’t Matter. It would have been a difficult design to fit into the vision Wizards of the Coast apparently had for the game, but creating a homogenous merit and flaw system that added something different and interesting to the game would have been a far cry better than copying a watered down version of a system you’ve already obsoleted with other designs.


It seems people are confused as to why I believe Fourth Edition died. I thought I made it pretty clear, but I’m going to reiterate my point as clearly as possible for my readers, just in case:

Fourth Edition died because it stopped selling books. It stopped selling books because the designers of the game were no longer publishing anything that was at all interesting. I feel that this is a failing on the part of the designers to exploit the cavernous amounts of design space available in Fourth Edition D&D.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Wear Black Robes Now. Black Robes are Cool.

Yesterday, I published a post about how I want some more equality in my D&D. Everyone was with me about the depiction of female characters and representing a greater spectrum of skin tones in the art. Where I seemed to lose people was in the idea that people with disabilities could be cool. Apparently, to be worth looking at in a piece of game art, you must be able-bodied, hale and healthy.

My buddy Raistlin here disagrees.

RaistlinTestofTheTwinsSee, Raistlin isn’t exactly Mr. Healthypants. He was a sickly kid, got picked on a lot, and grew up to take a test that destroyed his body and made him a physical wreck of a man. He was weak, he was slow, he had a wracking cough for which he took foul-smelling medicines and which often had him spitting blood into a handkerchief.

Then – and this is important – he killed the Dragon Goddess of Evil. By himself.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean a lot to you. Maybe, like my friend M, you think that Raistlin was a creepy wimp, undeserving of respect. Maybe, like my friend J, you think that Raistlin belongs in the written fluff of the game, the novels and the short stories, but people like him shouldn’t appear in the art. Personally, I think Raistlin is one of the most beloved characters from the early era of D&D fiction because he is a kid with disabilities, an underdog who came back and proved to be the most powerful of his companions despite his afflictions. He found ways around them, found strength in them, and in so doing became a total fucking badass.

I’m not saying that we should have rules for multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy in the game. I just see no reason why a character with one of those conditions couldn’t be a total badass in the context of the game’s art. I just see no reason why there shouldn’t be an image of a kick-ass wizard with Lou Gehrig’s (I think we can all agree that Stephen Hawking is the most badass wizard in the world right now).

The arguments brought forth so far are thus: people who are differently abled would be terrible player-characters in a role-playing game; it is already difficult to find cool pictures of player character options in the books and that the inclusion of differently abled individuals reduces the number of cool pictures available; D&D isn’t about the real world, it’s about idealized visions of yourself; and the effort would lead to trivialization and mockery. I’m going to address these things one at a time, but so far as I’m concerned, the only actual argument, the only thing on that list that is not veiled ableism, is the concern regarding trivialization.

There are two assumptions made in the first two arguments that are deeply disturbing to me: “the differently abled are entirely incompetent,” and “the differently abled cannot be cool.” These assumptions are, honestly, at the heart of ableism, and it makes my heart hurt to know that some folks’ knee-jerk reaction to inclusion of the differently abled is to assert their inability and apparent lack of awesome. It is deeply upsetting that these sorts of assertions normally go entirely unchallenged.

It is entirely possible for a differently abled individual to be entirely, 100% fucking incredible. It happens all the time, and you are well within your rights to punch anyone who says otherwise directly in their genitals.
The issue of trivialization is one that I’m sensitive to, though apparently not as keenly as I should be (I was taken to task for a few remarks that were trivializing, and I don’t mind admitting I’m feeling sheepish about that today), and it is an admittedly difficult thing to work through. The issue doesn’t really revolve around the post as it was written, as I was specifically speaking to the art of the game and purposefully avoiding talking about the game’s text, but on re-reading I can see how it could appear I was discussing adding differently abled characters to the game in a text/rules sense.

The path to addressing inclusion of the differently abled is a bit treacherous, as there’s disagreement within the communities of the differently abled about how the topic should be treated, and any action taken on it is probably to offend someone. That doesn’t at all mean that we shouldn’t make the effort, though, and it is imperative that we get incredible people working on it. While it is going to require some tricky public relations work, I think that including anyone and everyone in your game is always a worthwhile endeavor.

An Open Letter to D&D Next’s Art Department

Everyone is talking about what features they want to see in the next version of Dungeons & Dragons. Personally, though, I understand that I will very likely not see my pet mechanics in the core of the game, or even in expansions, because I’m one of those crazy kids who grew up lurking on The Forge and has some pretty fucked up ideas about games, gaming, and game design. Also, I don’t think I have anything useful to add to the dialogue until I see the direction the design is going in. I can guess, and I can suggest a direction that I think would be beneficial to the game, but I can’t really improve a design I’ve never seen. I will be much more concerned with making D&DV the best it can be and much less concerned with pigeonholing it to fit whatever I think the essence of D&D is.

So instead, I’m going to talk to another very important part of the Dungeons & Dragons experience. I’m going to talk about art. Which is a pretty hefty step away from what I normally look at, because there are times when I write enormous posts (like this one) that don’t even have pictures. I’m very much a wall-of-text blogger, so it might seem a little unorthodox that I would be as worried about the direction of the art as I am. But I am very, very, deeply concerned about the direction of the art in this game, and I would like to invite the art department, particularly those in decision-making positions, to pay close attention to what I am about to say next:

Dungeons & Dragons is still seen as a sexist game, and you are the only people in the world who can fix that.

It’s not just sexist, though. It’s sexist, it’s racist, and it’s ableist in its artistic representation of people. Now, I’ve heard all the arguments against having people of color and women depicted in the art of a fantasy role-playing game, and I think they’re all hooey. And to be fair, there has been headway made. I have seen progress, especially from the chainmail bikini era of game art.

And I’m not accusing anyone of purposefully excluding people of color, the differently abled or women from their depictions of heroic figures. Anyone who is actively trying to exclude or belittle people from their game is a dickbag, and it is very likely that will come through in the game itself (Byron Hall, I’m looking at you). What is happening is primarily blindness to the issue. So I am going to make a request, and it is my sincere hope that you, the art department responsible for the look and feel of D&D Next will take it under advisement.


Women make up 52% of the world’s population. They can make up 50% of the people in your game’s art. Moreover, the exact number of pictures in which a woman is standing in an Impossible Position is 0. For every piece of art submitted, have the artist attempt to pose him or herself in the positions of the people depicted. If either person’s position is painful, that pose is very likely held by a female character whose breasts and buttocks are pressed out to increase her sexiness.

Wizards of the Coast has very clearly established that sexiness is not something they believe Dungeons & Dragons needs. If there were room for sex in D&D, the Book of Erotic Fantasy would have been updated to Fourth Edition. You specifically precluded the possibility of that happening in your licensing for a reason. If sexiness is a factor in how D&D art is chosen, something has gone terribly wrong.


Human skin comes in a lot of colors from black to white to yellow to red to brown. Human features come in a huge range of styles and types. I understand that we’re playing in a fantasy world where the various skin tones in reality may not be as prevalent. But I also know that in said fantasy world all of the monks look Asian. Even the elves.

Have some fun drawing black dudes in mage robes or brown chicks in plate mail. Evenly distribute the skin tones across the whole of your books, and the problem of racism mostly disappears (except, y’know, the “Goblins are evil because they’re green,” issue). And this doesn’t just go for the humans, guys. Elves obviously have some skin tone variation going on (Oh, hey Drizzt.). Dwarves can go from chestnut brown to fair skinned. I love the idea of charcoal-skinned halflings and a range of skin-tones for half-orcs from phthalo green to honeydew. All this does is make the art more interesting, and add depth that might otherwise be missing from the depiction of the game world.


Ableism is a tough thing to address in a role-playing game. I get that. It’s tough to be a bad-ass knight if you can’t walk. Being an amputee isn’t cool… Wait a fucking minute, yeah it is! Ahab lost a leg to a whale and was a total badass. Bran Stark is paralyzed from the waist down and he’s one of the most interesting characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Rick Grimes loses a hand and goes batfuck crazy, but he’s one of the toughest assholes to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Making the differently abled a part of your game world is easier than it sounds. Hell, one of my players built a character whose hand had been cut off and some asshole was out there wearing it around his neck. It didn’t come with any penalties or anything, it was just a flavor thing that made him a total badass, and it was all description. Characters that are Big Damn Heroes despite having challenges above and beyond the norm are awesome, and should be shown to be so in game art.


This is sort of a minor point, but it’s one I’d like to make anyway: having characters of various sizes and shapes is not at all unrealistic, nor does it reduce the heroic aspect of the fantasy. Look at any successful fantasy series ever, and you’re going to find a bunch of different body shapes, because different body shapes are something we understand, something we _get_. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt to reduce the impact of stereotypical, hyper-sexualized imagery in the media you’re creating. Give me some pudgy mages and some scrawny fighters, please.

All I’m looking for, what I’m really asking you for, is to look critically at the message your art sends to the people who will be looking at it. ALL of the people who will be looking at it. Ask yourself, if you were in the shoes of a feminist, what would you think of this illustration? If you lived in a wheelchair, how would you feel about seeing nothing but able-bodied folk?

And you can argue, if you like, that this is just the opinion of a privileged white guy. Because, y’know, it is. I’m not a woman, I’m not a minority, and my only disability is depression. But I’m just the voice for a silent riot, guys. There are others like me, and there are some who have made a great show of picking apart the inherent sexism, racism and ableism of your art. And we’re speaking for a much larger group of people you will never hear from, but who feel uncomfortable playing your game because it depicts women, minorities and the differently abled as something less than the able-bodied white dudes on page after page.

Kristoffer Hansen
Games Manager
Warp One Comics and Games

Further Reading:
Go Make Me a Sandwich
Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor

Monday, January 09, 2012

Why Fourth Edition Died

So, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has been announced, and the news has struck the sort of reaction I expected it to. People are hoping for this feature or that. Others are expressing their dismay at the fact that a new edition is coming so soon on the heels of D&D: Essentials. Yet others are suggesting that this heralds the end of Dungeons & Dragons, that a new edition will make the already split RPG community even more fractious. There are yet others that have met the news with incredible, soul-crushing apathy. So, there’s that.

To be honest, I’m not even really sure what to say about the development. I could talk about how much 4E and Essentials stuff I have on my shelves right now. Or I could talk about what I want to see from the new D&D. Or I could talk about what I think would be the best possible direction for the game to take (which is quite different from what I want to see, truth be told). I could talk about a lot of things, but I think what I’m going to talk about today is design space, design philosophy, and why Fourth Edition failed.

See, we wouldn’t need a Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons if Fourth Edition was given the sort of design team it deserves. And by that, I don’t mean folks like Monte Cook. Mr. Cook is an incredible designer and makes good game, and for that I think he deserves a stalwart salute and as many dollars as the industry can throw at him. Under his guidance, Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons revitalized the industry, but his is not the sort of hand a design like Fourth Edition needs. Fourth Edition needs someone like Mark Rosewater. Fourth Edition needs someone like Keith Baker. Fourth Edition needs someone like Kenneth Nagle.

You will note that all three of those names are attached to people who design cards. Two of the, Rosewater and Nagle, are Magic: The Gathering designers. Baker is responsible for Gloom, which is incredible and does something no other card game did before he came up with it. This isn’t to say that I think Fourth Edition needs to be treated like a card game, far from it. It needs to be treated in a way that only men of this design tack can treat a game.

The problem with Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the biggest problem that any edition of D&D has ever faced, is that the people who were designing it didn’t know a goddamned thing about Design Space. I’m not talking about James Wyatt or Mike Mearls. I’m talking about the Matt Sernett’s of the world, the Rob Heinsoo’s. The guys who make Power books and the guys who put out new campaign settings. The people who are the life’s blood of a role-playing game production.

See, Wyatt and Mearls put together a hell of a game. Say what you will about it, it is impossible to deny that the thing was well designed. There are hundreds of moving pieces, thousands of possible combinations, just in the first book, and those things come together beautifully. In many ways, the core Fourth Edition was like the first Magic: The Gathering set, or Gloom. It did things no one had ever done in role-playing games before, and it made an incredible show of it. What’s more, the framework left behind by that first book was amazing. There was design space all over the game, and it was waiting to be plumbed by talented designers. The first showing we had of that was the second Player’s Handbook, where we started to play around with how powers fit together, and how classes were built. There was an incredible and untouched plaza of design waiting to happen around races, with racial feats and racial powers barely touched. There was room left open for the creation and invention of magic items, and the powers framework lent itself to customization beautifully. There was a ton of space in the way monsters were put together (so much so that I found myself drawn to concepts like the Fourthcore Bestiary because of innovative aura designs – understand that for a moment… AURA designs; one tiny little speck in the whole of the game). Seriously, though, let’s take a look at some of the things that weren’t properly explored in Fourth Edition’s brief history:


We saw a lot of books filled with powers, and one book that actually did something neat with them. Having loads of powers doesn’t make for customization, having powers that work in strange ways makes for customization. Understand that the only interesting powers in the whole of the game were those in the Player’s Handbook and those in the Player’s Handbook 3. The originals and the _only_ set of powers that were at all different or strange. One could argue for the powers from Essentials, but seriously, fuck one. The powers presented in those books were half-assed concessions to the players lost in the Pathfinder Exodus, and nothing more. If you wanted to make powers interesting, here’s a one-sentence answer to the problem: Magic cards are still interesting.

Seriously, and this is incredibly important, Magic design is where the D&D crew should have looked for more interesting power designs. Not the cards themselves, mind, but the philosophy behind those cards. Magic cards constantly break the rules of the game they’re played in. That’s the whole point of the game. What the designers of D&D tried to do was create a homogenized environment in which none of the powers effectively broke the rules, and that’s really the wrong way to build a game that’s made out of a bunch of crazy powers. You need each power to break the rules of the game in an interesting way that helps you win that game. Then you need to do the same thing to the monsters they’re fighting.

Moreover, there is an element of randomness in Magic: The Gathering that D&D really could have used sometimes. It had this when wizards were forced to memorize their spells each day, because the wizard would try to guess at which spells were going to be needed and prepare those ones in advance. Magic solves this by randomizing your hand. D&D4E solves it by not solving it at all. There was no need to pore over your powers, because after a short nap, you’d have them all back again, right as rain. This isn’t the way to go into this territory at all. There is nothing about this that’s suspenseful or fun. Sure, players like getting all their powers back at once, but what the players want and what is good for the game is seldom the same thing.

The design space here is mind-boggling. Off the top of my head: a whole list of Encounter Powers that could be made better by giving up a Daily; Encounter Powers that take two full rounds to use; Daily Powers that change when in certain circumstances (underground, flying, in the sunlight, whatever); a list of At-Will powers you can give up using for the rest of the encounter to make way better; a list of At-Will powers that are as strong as Daily powers, but use up the character’s healing surges as a cost; Lifetime powers, powers that can only ever be used once, ever; uncontrollable powers that go off in certain circumstances, but the player has no control over them; come-back powers that allow you to do incredible things for the cost of an action point; counter-powers that allow a player to stop another player or NPC’s powers from going off as an immediate interrupt; mind-drain powers that steal another character’s powers for a turn, or treat that power as spent; dramatic powers that allow you to influence story events in subtle (or, for dailies, not-so-subtle ways)… Seriously, this is just what I came up with in the time it took me to write this list… I’m sure some of them have been done, or variations on them, but I know a bunch of others have never been touched, and that’s a damned shame.


One of the things I was most looking forward to in the creation of D&D4E was the promise that races were going to get a lot more attention than they had gotten previously. Elves could be wicked-cool at being rangers, sure, but they could also be wicked-cool at being, y’know, Elves. And I rather liked that idea, being one of those strange kids that enjoyed playing D&D when Elf was a class. We were promised feats, Paragon Paths (which is sort of a suck concept, but I’ll get onto that in a bit), epic destinies, and I thought this was going to be a big deal when they were talking about it.

Turns out, it was just one more path towards optimization, when it could have been so much more. Again, the amount of design space left open by more focus on races and their interactions is staggering. One very simple answer is to make race-specific classes using some of the design space we have available in the POWERS section, but that’s hardly where the buck stops on racial design space.

I mean, design isn’t just a matter of rules, however much that may be unapparent from the way Wizards of the Coast has handled it. A lot of it comes from flavor, and rather than focus on any given flavorful concept (even their own Points of Light flavor, the thing they’ve touted around for so long without actually exploring it at all), the Fourth Edition answer has been Add More Races. Which is problematic, because there are only so many places one can go in that direction, and this trip has ended with People Made of Crystals, which is fucking stupid. And no, the right answer doesn’t lie in making subraces, because the gods alone know I can’t put up with another Kender. No, the answer lies in making interesting and powerful cultures for the people of already established races, and building off of that.

Eberron proved this in Three Point Five. You take elves, just normal everyday, boring fucking elves, and you give them a continent that they rule, and suddenly we have the Undying Court and crazy Inca-inspired magic, and weird-ass traditions and rules that affect elves still living in Khorvair. And we haven’t changed elves at all. They’re still elves, they still have the same bonuses and flaws, they’re still the same elves we know and love and/or hate, nothing has changed about them, but they are entirely, completely different. Same goes for Baker’s treatment of the Drow. Same goes for Weis and Hickman’s decision to put dwarves on horseback and have them ride around nomadically. Same is true of every human culture in every fantasy setting ever written.

And it sort of looked like backgrounds were going to be how this worked itself out, but they backgrounds were generally pretty lame unless they were overpowered schlock from a single campaign that wormed its way into the Character Builder. And then themes looked like they were going to get this figured out, but themes never took off the way they should have. To be perfectly honest, themes are the sorts of things you want in a core book, not a campaign setting, and they’ve never really gotten the spotlight time they deserve.


This is one of the most prominent complaints about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons in my store: it’s not as customizable as players want it to be. Your fighter has a type, and deviating from that type usually means that you are going to be crippled in combat. There are a few good generic powers for each class, but the best usually focus around the template’s specific niche abilities. And that’s just bad game design, guys.

I’m going to, again, look at Magic: The Gathering as a good example of how to do much the same thing. See, the point isn’t to make certain abilities work better with certain templates, the point is to make a bunch of abilities that work on their own, and have a level of synergy that make it desirable to play those things together. I can build a green deck out of whatever the hell I want, but if I’m trying to ramp into a host of big beaters, I’d best be looking for some Llanowar Elves and some Birds of Paradise, ne? There is nothing saying I can’t play Birds of Paradise in any other deck, I certainly can, but if I’m looking to ramp mana, I put birds in my deck.

The same is true of powers in D&D. Every power should work well on its own and do something valuable that the rest of the party can build on, but if you build synergies into your powers, your players will find those things on their own, and they will build their characters according to whatever build they want to make.

The funny thing about this is that it changes exactly nothing. You’re still making templates for your fighters, you’re just not making the powers exclusive to those templates and letting the players suss them out for themselves.

Moreover, there are a lot of things you can do with the class system that simply were not done. Again, I point to racial classes. Again, I point to the way powers were never filled out the way they should have been. And I also point to the fact that there has never been a martial controller. And I also point to the fact that there is a nearly endless number of possible combinations of power-types and class archetypes. They’ve covered the basics, sure, and having an endless number of classes isn’t really all that important, but having a lot more customizability in your classes and having those class combinations rotate around the niche system you’ve established would go a long way towards building a much more playable, designable game.

And with themes, paragon paths, and epic destinies at your disposal, you have a lot of room to build in extra customization as you build your game. Paragon paths in particular were an unplumbed font of design space that could have really changed the history of the game. Prestige Classes defined Third Edition D&D, and the amount of effort that went into creating a whole bloody host of them is evident in the fact that there’s a whole bloody host of them. The number of prestige classes available to a player of 3.5 D&D is “too many to choose from.” Paragon paths, not so much.

And Epic Destinies… Oh man, would I have done the Epic Destiny entirely differently. That may actually require a different post, so let’s not talk about that just yet. Let’s just say “FATE,” and move on.


One of the biggest advances Third Edition D&D made to the game was the introduction of a universal skill system. It wasn’t pretty, and it definitely had its problems, but it made the game flow in a totally different way than any edition previous. And while I don’t think that the introduction of the skill system made Fourth Edition any better (I actually think it made it quite a bit worse), it was a damned fine piece of gaming tech, and I understand why they kept it around.

Having played a bunch of First Edition D&D this year, I think they made a rather incredibly horrible mistake by including skills in the game at all. I often tell people that I think Fourth Edition D&D plays more like First Edition D&D than any edition between them, and I still think that’s very true. The difference, the place where I find Fourth boring, is between battles. In First Edition D&D, you had to be on your toes, you had to be thinking, you had to move carefully from room to room and solve all sorts of insane problems just to survive. And that doesn’t involve much in the way of skill rolls from anyone but the thief, and most of the time your thief isn’t good enough to make any of his or her checks anyway. Skills, as they are presented in Fourth Edition D&D, are a crutch used to hand-wave away problems solving and role-playing. In Third Edition, they absolutely made sense, and they added something great to the game. In Fourth Edition, all they did was make it dull.

And the designers couldn’t have possibly known that going in, and I don’t at all blame them for the choice of including a skill system, but I don’t think I will ever play with skills as they are written in Fourth Edition ever again.

Again, this idea might require an entire post to talk about in any sort of comprehensive way, so I think I’m going to move on to…


When I first wrote this, I actually completely forgot about feats, which should give you an idea of how important I think they are to the Fourth Edition of D&D. Like skills, feats were a defining feature of Third Edition D&D. They were, in a word, incredible. In many ways, they allowed you to do things that were, in Fourth Edition, performed via powers. Cleave and Great Cleave were powerhouses of efficient fighting. The meta-magic feats gave magic-users a powerful advantage. Feats meant something to Third Edition.

In Fourth Edition, they’re basically an afterthought, which is a damnable shame, because the amount of design space opened up by feats is insane. I mean, when you break feats down, they’re just a talent tree, with feats building off of other feats to create more powerful combinations down the line. The only feats worth taking half the time, though, were Toughness and the Wintertouched/Lasting Frost combo.

And that is really, deeply stupid.

Like much of what I’ve been talking about today, feats are a layer of character creation that provides a powerful range of customization tools that can be used to make your game better. It’s these layers that add to the fun of building a character, and they’re the sort of thing from which an entire path of feats can be built. When utilized properly (providing actual, wicked-ass bonuses to the people who take them) bonus/flaw systems can be incredible.

What I guess I’m getting at here is that every layer of the D&D game has a bunch of really wicked design space that is laying open for us to tinker with. Class, race, skills, feats, themes, backgrounds, whatever. And the fact that it hasn’t been tinkered with in any meaningful way is really deeply disappointing.


Combat in Fourth Edition D&D is a fucking mess.

I say this with all the love in the world for the designers and the game itself: it is a fucking mess and needs heavy reworking to make it marginally playable. This is especially true of any level over 12, which is entirely disappointing because much of the system was designed to solve the Sweet Spot problem. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition’s sweet spot is levels 1-10.

Combat takes too long. Characters, both the NPCs and the Player Characters, have too many hit points. Figuring out tactics and powers is a time consuming and mind-numbingly dull process. After twelve rounds, even interesting bad guys become a slog and I have players checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

There are a few problems with combat in Fourth Edition, but none of those problems are problems of Design Space. Still, they are worth mentioning in the context of “this is what killed Fourth Edition D&D,” so I’ll be taking a brief look at them.

I’m going to make this as simple as I can: when you make a game, include all of the things you need to play in the box. If your game needs dice, include dice. If you game needs miniatures, include miniatures. If your game requires a grid map, you’d best include a grid map. The creeping reliance of Dungeons & Dragons on miniatures is perverse, commercialistic and sad. You didn’t need miniatures to play D&D1E, and you could certainly get away without them in D&D2. It was in D&D3, with the invention of “flanking,” that the miniatures stopped being a good tool and started being a necessary element of play, and Fourth Edition continued this trend with a gusto that bordered on sinister. As a games retailer, I often found that this increased my sales, but not of Dungeons & Dragons product. Chessex got a lot of money from the lack of production inclusion in D&D, and Reaper made most of the rest, especially after Wizards pulled the plug on their miniature lines.

Moreover, miniatures do not make the game more fun.

Maybe I’m in a minority here, but I have always found my imagination is plenty capable of determining what is happening with a crew of wererats, and I find that putting them on a board in front of me dulls the imaginative blitz of combat. Also, fiddling with toys takes time, and the largest factor against D&D combat is that it takes entirely too much time already. Give me a sheet of graph paper and my imagination any day.

Of course, this does reduce one of the branches of power design that was horribly abused while making Fourth Edition: movement and combat advantage (which are, in reality, the same fucking thing). I’m okay losing that space for the sake of a cleaner, faster D&D experience.

Changing gears: we don’t need this many hit points. Killing player characters  is very difficult in Fourth Edition, which is okay. I get it, we’re supposed to be heroic adventurers, not meat for a grinder. Except that without a threat of player character death, combat becomes dull, an exercise in whittling a monster down to zero. Killing player characters more often is not a bad thing. Your players will thank you for combat encounters that take less than an hour.

And one more time: DO YOUR MATH!!! Paragon tier is a mess. Epic gets even worse. And the Monster Vaults only helped marginally. Do your fucking math, guys, figure out how much time it’s going to take for a level 12-14 party to kill a level 13 solo, because I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that it’s longer than your ideal play flow.


Item creation is stupid. The economy is wrecked. Character Builder software is basically necessary. And the alignment system is stupid.


This seems pretty obvious to me, but I’m going to spell it out anyway.

We need a very simple, very basic version of Dungeons & Dragons. Abilities, race, class, basic combat powers, hit points, armor class, non-armor defenses… go! I want to see a core Dungeons & Dragons that is so incredibly simple I could teach it to an eight year old in under a half hour. These will be the core and most basic rules of the game, the rules everything else is designed to break.

Then we start in on the options. Hundreds of powers. New races, new classes, new racial classes. Themes, integrated from the beginning of the game. Backgrounds that are good for more than a +2 skill bonus. Feats that actually matter. A skill system. An expanded skill system for things like “profession” and “craft” skills. Magic items that are interesting and strange and setting-defining. A variety of spell/attack/power systems. A couple of interesting morality systems. Fill your boots with optional content, but leave the core of the game as simple, pristine and clean as possible.

Then explore the optional design space ad infinitum.

And I think this is maybe the most important thing in the world: invite your players to do the same. One of the shining achievements of Third Edition D&D was that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people working on the game at any given time, and that meant that there was an enormous glut of product available to anyone who wanted to find it. I have a book about African adventuring that is both brilliant and terrible (and Eurocentric and insensitive and empowering and informed). That would not have existed, that _could not_ have existed without the framework that the OGL provided for creating new and interesting content. I want to see that sort of exploration go into the newest version of Dungeons & Dragons, and without a specific invitation from the Guys Upstairs, we aren’t going to have it.