Over the weekend I posted an article showing the skill distribution for the two Essentials players books. I added some quick analysis along with a statement that I intended to delve a bit deeper. Today I'd like to discuss why I think the current skills system leads people to be optimizers.
The Core Mechanic Encourages Optimization
In 4e, the books describe the core mechanic of the game, "the most important rule," as the following:
1. Roll a d20. You want to roll high!
2. Add all relevant modifiers.
3. Compare the total to a target number. If your result equals or exceeds the target number, the check is a success. Otherwise, it's a failure.
When I run games for new players, I'm told to explain this core mechanic. It explicitly sets up a situation where there is a binary success/failure and where players will feel the need to optimize. While there are always exceptions, such as DM-given bonuses for roleplaying, regardless of the table you play at, this is the assumed base experience.
So, if that informs the base of what you know about the game, it's reasonable to assume that a player likely will pick skills that align with the character's better abilities, the ones that give the largest bonus, especially when he or she has no idea how those skills might be used in the game itself. After all, what's important is that we roll high.
I'm a Star at Something, Right?
Even if that wasn't the core mechanic, I don't think it's particularly radical to suggest that people who sit down for the first time might pick skills based on what their character is innately good at. When I started out, I had no idea if history was going to be more useful to me than bluff (not that I necessarily had access to both of those skills), but I did know what my character was likely to be good at and just said she was also likely to be interested in learning more about those things. Also, it seems typical that players might want to differentiate their characters in a particular area. We're playing heroes after all. For instance:
- "Thadeous has the gift of a silver tongue and the personality to milk it for all its worth." (Diplomacy)
- "Serena's parents love to tell the story of how she walked across the laundry line to visit her friend at age 3. They knew she was a natural for the royal circus." (Acrobatics)
If everyone in a hero groups has basically the same set of skills and about the same abilities in them, what makes them unique? What would Leverage look like if all five of them were hitters? What would the Fellowship of the Ring look like if they were all wizards or rangers? Furthermore, if we are to have class skill lists, they should make it easier, not harder, to create a hero. Why auto-assign certain skills if the class isn't particularly good at the related ability, as in the case of the warpriest? But if we look at those distributions, we can see that by design it's harder to do that for some classes.
How Might Word-Based Ranks Help?
This natural inclination towards optimization, reinforced by the core mechanic, is one of the biggest reasons I like the idea of moving to word based ranks for skills. I personally would love to get away from worrying about +2 bonuses here and -1 penalties there. In my opinion, they often clutter our feat and magic item lists with these small opportunities to move the needle in one direction or the other for too small of an overall gain. Small increases in attack precision make a lot more sense given the small differences in defenses between levels. I don't think the same is true with skills. I'm not sure about the rest of the rules in that column, such as when you may roll, but I think that's a better discussion for later.
When Might Skill Clumping Be Counter-Productive?
Unlike combat, the roleplaying portion of 4e doesn't provide a way of moving the spotlight from player to player. Trying to enforce an initiative-order like system on this part of the game can make the story stilted and unnatural. In my experience, the lack of tools for moving the spotlight around makes it very easy for a player to fall out of the game during role-playing and skill challenges, especially shy or reserved players. If a character doesn't have a special skill to contribute, I think this makes it even more likely that unless the player has an internal reason for wanting to be part of it, such as enjoying play-acting or storytelling, the player will tune out. This isn't necessarily bad, not everyone enjoys this part of the game, but I think the current skills distribution can lead to this behavior in players who might otherwise enjoy role playing. As with just about anything, DM skill can overcome this.
In addition, just like certain damage keywords, some skills are more valuable than others. While this will vary from group to group, in general, heavy use of acrobatics, bluff, thievery and streetwise in skill challenges, traps, and other skill rolls may cause the spotlight to shine much more often on certain players versus others.
When Might Skill Clumping be Productive?
For some skills, we might want a number of characters competent in them. For tasks that come up often in the game, but not in a way that really spotlight's a particular character's talents, we might want a number of the people in the party to use the same skill. Perhaps they are trying to convince the hermit wizard that they aren't going to run off with his expensive magic item that will be useful in tracking down the evil goblin king who is attacking the town.
Some Ideas to Help
I've written a fair bit already, but I want to point out some tools that can help. I will write more in the future about this.
What some games do to move the spotlight around is to break the game down into scenes and having each scene have a subset of the characters present. For some groups, we could have multiple scenes taking place across the city at the same time. Perhaps one team is off trying to pass off a forged letter while another is gathering information in a bar. Even within one room we could have multiple scenes going. Perhaps a grate high up in the wall could provide the group with information of what's in the next room while another group could be investigating some runes on the floor.
The emphasis should be that the people in a particular scene should rely on their own skills and the skills used should be driven by role play. Yes, this can mean splitting the party during these parts of the game. If you keep each scene short and provide easy ways for the characters to escape any combat, this should be fine.
Not all checks need to be binary in nature. The result doesn't have to indicate success or failure. Instead, it could represent degree of success. Let's say you're in a treasure room when someone, I'm not going to name names Mr McStealy, triggers a trap that causes the ceiling to begin descent. The DM can ask you to make a check to see how much treasure you escape with and the number you roll indicates the amount of success. Everyone will want to make this check regardless of their modifier. It's fun and we get to roll some dice. Not all non-binary checks need to be fun but they need to mean something to the players and/or their characters.
Ok, more later. But for now, I have to get some food. :)
I've been thinking a lot about the 4e skills system, especially between the announcement of Monte Cook rejoining the WotC R&D team and the two Legends & Lore articles: Skills in D&D and Difficulty Class Warfare. With the two articles, there are things I liked in them and things I didn't. I tried for four days to write a post about my thoughts on both of those systems and I found I couldn't write it. Why? Because there were problems in the current system I often felt but couldn't explain.
Both as a player and as a DM, I've felt that 4e classes often step on each other's toes when it comes to skill use. The number of people at the table with approximately the same modifier to a skill makes it hard as a DM to allow a player to shine. It gets especially bad when the skill is something that's seen as iconic to the character, such as the skills that are automatically trained for a particular class.
In addition, I played a slayer in a recent campaign and found the character awesome tactically but I basically withdrew whenever we tried to do roleplaying. I really didn't understand why until I looked into the skill distribution for Essentials characters.
So why look at only at Essentials characters? Well, these are the books that are evergreen, they should always be available at the hobby shop or the bookstore. We are also told that these are the on-ramp to D&D for new players. In addition, they should have gotten it right by this point. I cut earlier books a lot of slack because I realize how much 4e was a shift from previous ways of playing and creating the game. Finally, they are the simplest form of the game. We don't have to worry about the further complications of backgrounds or themes as they don't appear in the books.
|Class||Number of Trained Skills at 1st Level||Automatically Assigned Skills||Class Skills List Size||Overlap with Primary Ability||Overlap with Secondary Ability|
* This automatically assigned skill aligns with the class's primary ability.
** These classes have multiple suggested secondary abilities.
What this table tells me is that some classes are forced to pick suboptimal skills due to the class skills available to the class but this forced choice isn't standardized across classes. This is particularly prominent among the strong melee character classes knight, slayer, and cavalier. They all have the same skill that aligns with their primary ability, Athletics. So if you have two of the three in a party, it will be harder to make them shine through an Athletics skill check. (I am making the assumption that players will tend to pick skills that align with primary or secondary abilities, it's possible that most new players will pick what sounds interesting.)
|Skill||Total Number of Classes with Access||Aligns with Class's Primary Ability||Aligns with Class's Secondary Ability*||Total with Likely Low Ability Modifiers**|
* Three classes have multiple secondary abilities.
** The total classes minus the ones with primary or secondary abilities. Since some classes have multiple suggested secondary abilities, this number might be slightly off.
What this table tells me is that some skills are better as general challenges to the party. For instance, there's likely to be someone trained in Athletics or Heal. It also shows why Endurance is often a dump skill. It's on the class list for 6 of the 10 classes, but only 2 classes suggest Constitution as a secondary ability. On the other end of the spectrum are thievery, bluff, and streetwise. Few classes offer those skills but for the ones that do, it's often a good way to help that character shine.
Now, I'm not suggesting that they should have made a big chart and ensured they filled in all the boxes. What I am suggesting is that this should be more apparent to DMs when they create or modify adventures for their table. I hope to write more about this soon.
EDIT: A chart I should probably make is class roles to skills but that's a task for another day.
In honor of Speak Out With Your Geek Out, I'd like to talk about some geeky things that mean a lot to me, regardless of their direct application to gaming. For today, that topic will be math puzzles. My love of math and science started pretty early. I have an insatiable appetite for learning, something I share with the rest of my family. We would spend hours watching what my dad called "weird shows," documentaries, news and other thinking programs. We also did a lot of experiments and fixed a lot of the stuff we owned ourselves by checking out repair manuals from the library. My mom worked on circuit boards in the factory she worked at and she definitely knew how to program the VCR. We did not have the flashing clock problem in our household.
While I loved many math and science based activities, my favorites were verbal arithmetic and logic puzzles. The first time I remember learning about verbal arithmetic puzzles was in the book Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School. Yes, I was the geek who bought books like that for fun from Scholastic Press. (I may even have skipped lunch somedays so I could afford them. Please don't tell my parents.) I loved these puzzles because they were the first time I was shown a new way to do math. Until now, I was used to being taught how to do math. You do operations on two numbers to get a third, memorize these multiplication tables, remember to carry the 1, etc.
With puzzles like Send + More = Money, the game changed. Now I had to figure out how to solve the problem and then solve it. What do we know about the limits of adding two numbers together that will tell me what M represents? Once we know M, what can we guess about S and O? For me, it reinforced patterns between numbers and provided a framework for attacking new problems. I couldn't get enough. When I found out the 8th grade teacher who taught in the room before our class was giving similar puzzles to his students, I begged him to give them to me too and handed them in the next morning every time.
Logic puzzles hold a similar place in my heart. I particularly loved logic grid puzzles because I enjoyed writing out the grid and filling in the possibilities. They helped me analyze what was being said and play with numbers. They made the topics less abstract, which for me is a great thing.
I credit these puzzles with helping me attain a lot of things that aren't immediately obvious. Many of the approaches I used for solving logic and verbal arithmetic puzzles I repurposed for taking multiple choice tests. The usefulness of such tests in the education system is a different debate, but I know I did well on them in part because I approached them the way I would a puzzle. As soon as I was reasonably sure an answer could not be correct, I crossed it off. If I wasn't sure I could answer the question right away, I moved on to the next one. They also helped me organize my thoughts and showed me new ways of thinking about topics I had thought to be relatively straightforward. I'm sure getting experience with symbols in the place of numbers or words helped me later learn to program and the steps I developed to solve the puzzle are basically algorithms.
Oh and if you want to use these puzzles in your game, they could be used in a number of ways. Puzzles like Send + More = Money can be used to figure out exactly how many coins need to be placed on the balance in order to open the door. Or a sage might ask the group to solve a logic puzzle before revealing a huge hint to them.
Recently Jeremy from the Stormin' Da Castle blog sent me an email. In it, he requested my advice for a project he was working on, updating some of the Planescape races for 4e. In particular, he wanted my opinions on updating the bariaur, a race that had different mechanics depending on gender.
Truthfully, I always get a little nervous when I get requests like this. I love D&D and want to be as respectful as possible to its rich traditions and heritage. However, I sometimes have a problem with how gender and biological sex were handled in the past. To me, this makes it a complex issue.
First, a little info on the bariaur. I don't have any information outside of what Jeremy provided in his email, so if I'm missing a critical bit of information, please let me know. My understanding is that they are a race of half ram, half human. Males were stronger and had a ram ability, apparently on the account of their horns. Females were smarter and had magic resistance. Below is my response, modified a bit to fit into a blog post rather than an email discussion.
So how would I approach this? On one hand, sexual dimorphism varies widely across species in the real world, and we might expect the same among races in a fantasy world. How cultures deal or don't deal with gender is a common theme for highlighting differences between them. And, for me, the big concern is how the overall product deals with gender rather than one particular race or culture. If the vast majority push all male or female characters in one particular direction, I start feeling constrained by the setting a way that's often uncomfortable for me.
On the other hand, some people are sensitive to gender differences that occur along the lines of men use brawn, women use brains and magic. Even if the work itself isn't sexist, it's a trigger for some people.
I know there is also the argument that why pick gender if it's not important in the mechanics. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of making gender part of mechanics because there is still a wide amount of variation within gender. I mean, when we discuss a gender, we're often talking about half of the population. And when we discuss PCs, we are talking about characters who break out of the expectations of their societies.
That said, I think there is a solid story reason here and it being one race out of a number (I'm assuming at least), I don't see a problem with carrying it through. Especially since a fair amount of the audience might really like that about the race (I don't know that for sure, just throwing out that there are always other concerns to balance against).
What I might do in this situation is find one common ability to bump up and then have strength or constitution and intelligence be the set players choose between. Then I would set up two main groups within the society. One group would get the charge racial ability and, in the fluff, I would describe the order of the ram. I wouldn't exclude women from the group, but make it clear that it's a mostly male group. Then I would have the other group that is typically formed from women. This way, if a player really wants to fight against the norms of the society, the rules don't forbid it, but I think we've respected the history of the race.
It turns out that Jeremy had already decided to do the ability bumps as I suggested. Check out his conversion of the bariaur. He is very kind to call me an expert, but I don't really see myself this way. I'm just passionate and willing to share my opinions.
Over the weekend, I started thinking about what type of game I would really like to play. Personally, I love faerie stories and love to play characters that swing a sword, so it's likely to have some of those elements to it. I also enjoy fostering creative solutions to problems. Just because I can solve problem x by using a sword doesn't mean I want to feel like that's the only way to solve it. So I came up with some brief thoughts. All of this is subject to change, but thinking it through helps me learn. This is mainly a thought/learning exercise.
While I understand why D&D uses character abilities such as intelligence, wisdom, charisma, etc to define the base of the character, I don't feel the need to keep that in my game. This isn't meant to be a war game and, to me at least, those abilities don't help new players understand their characters.
What I'm considering right now is the following. Have sources of power such as nature, martial, empathy, faith and academics/arcane. Instead of forcing a rigid class structure, all characters start with 1 base source and then they can climb the skill tree for that base source, pulling in skills from other source trees (similar to Civ's tech tree). So, if I want to be a druid, I would want to pick a lot of skills from nature and empathy. The skills would be similar to 4e powers but they would build on each other.
Like 4e, overall damage output would be tied to character level, not how they've progressed through the tree. My hope is that this would allow generalists and specialists in the same game, but it's way too early to know if that's possible. Individual skills might increase that damage or augment attacks in other ways, such as increasing the radius of a fireball attack. Other skills might increase defense or give PCs the ability to solve conflicts using non-violent means.
Finally, I really like 4e's system of HP and healing surges. I plan to modify it a bit though. HPs would still represent more or less physical health, but healing surges would become your overall drive or desire to continue on. When a character runs out of desire, he or she can be persuaded to give up the fight. In particular, I like this for NPCs. While it can be done by giving a different explanation of HP, I like thought that characters could "attack" in a non-violent way and that the mechanics reinforce the separation. Perhaps a bard's song really could cause people to put down their swords. Also, separating them means that some characters would be easier to defeat with non-violent means while others would require battle.
Empathy is a big change for me. I love it so much better than charisma. One of the paths I'm envisioning is learning plant lore (maybe a tie in to potion making), plant empathy (communicate with plants and get information from them), and then some sort of plant request skill so you can do things like ask trees or vines to grab and restrain enemies.
That's where I'm at so far.
Here there be ThunderCats spoilers.
In the episode "Journey to the Tower of Omens," the ThunderCats found the outer entrance to the temple where the ancients hid the Book of Omens. The Book of Omens is a powerful artifact in Thundera's mythology. In fact, the other animals often attacked Thundera trying to obtain it for themselves. The ancients took the book and built a temple to house it. In addition to secrecy, they protected the tower by providing a series of trials to test those seeking it.
The trials are a great example of providing opportunities for each character to shine (and sometimes to cause trouble).
- Snarf accidentally uncovers the outer opening by following his stomach.
- They are presented with a large locked door. Thousands of keys hang from the ceiling. When Cheetara tries the first key she finds, she triggers the trap. The bridge over the spike pit retracts. WilyKat saves them by picking the lock.
- They come to a long hallway and Panthro triggers a pressure plate by stepping on it. This triggers a blade attack that almost cuts him. Cheetara saves the day by using her incredible speed to race through the trap and hit the kill switch on the opposite end.
- Next they come to a room with a pool in the middle. In the bottom of the pool is gold. WilyKat and WilyKit go for it, being thieves after all, which triggers the water trap. They see a grate at the top of the room and try to tread water until they can reach it. Unfortunately, Panthro can't swim. He goes under. While Lion-o tries to save him, he needs to turn back when he runs out of air. When Panthro hits the bottom, he sees another way out and ends up saving all of them.
- When they get through the outer temple, they get to a doorway that opens to a cliff. Lion-o is finally able to use the Sword of Omens to see and it reveals the bridge trigger to him. However, he can't reach it. Tygra saves the day by using his whip.
One of the problems I often run into at my table is providing a way for each character to shine (and get into trouble). After years of having DMs use personality traits and "weaknesses" to screw over their characters, I've seen and heard a lot of players who are resistant to providing these. My players tend to prefer the same subset of skills so allowing them to differentiate along those lines is also difficult. And, I tend to forget to collect them information from them and keep it in one place, so my adventures aren't as tailored as they could be to the differences they do have.
One could argue that other systems are better about this because they either provide more skills or restrict a number of skills to particular classes. There are a few downsides to both of these. First, with longer skill lists, I think it's important to tell the players which skills are likely to be useful in the campaign. I'm not comfortable with having a player put a ton of points or ranks into a skill that is utterly useless in the campaign, such as something for sailing in a landlocked game or nature in a dungeon crawl. Once we limit the list, we are back to the same issue again.
Limiting by class forces some players to play a class they have no interest in to satisfy the needs of the party. Personally, that really bugs me. I know it has a long history in D&D, but it's just not my style and it adds a whole host of problems of its own. What happens when the shining moment for a particular character happens after he is unconscious? What if the thief dies in room 2 but the locked door is in room 5? Everyone needs to leave the dungeon and then hire or find a new thief? That's not my style.
If the group is ok with it, I think this is when group party creation can really shine. For skills, we can either set up one primary in the group or provide some background to the character to differentiate how each character uses that skill. We should still have good skill coverage even if one character goes down or her player isn't present. If two people really need to be trained in arcana, perhaps one is more of a knowledge person (like the wizard) and the other has an innate sense of how magic works and is able to create counter-spells on the spot (like a sorcerer). The exact specifics would come down to what the group negotiated.
Then it would be the DM's responsibility to make sure there are challenges tailored for each. If you are going ask them to roll to do it, it's important to ensure that failure won't stop the forward progress of the story. It could add or remove something from the story or force them to seek another alternative. Also, sometimes it makes sense to limit the test to only one character. Sometimes, even if the untrained fighter rolls a 20 on an arcana check, he shouldn't be able to close the portal to the abyss.
And then if the players are willing to provide weaknesses, adding elements to the story that would pull on them to decide between indulging their weakness or turning against it could be fun. If they indulge a weakness, I would add a complication to the story, such as triggering a trap, but provide a benefit. I'm not sure what benefits I would give yet, because some of them should be useful outside of combat. That means just offering action points doesn't exactly help.
In addition, I would make sure the challenges helped particular characters shine or make sure they all can shine in some way. In my experience from running Learn to Plays, a number of players are afraid to do things like stealth around to get an advantage before a battle because some of the characters have no stealth. The result is that a number of skills lie unused because the group thinks they all have to succeed on it to make it work. If the players preemptively decide to not use skills because they are useless in a party situation and we only present party situations, then what's the point? Perhaps the ranger can sneak up to a window before the battle to get a nice perch for ranged attacks? Or the rogue can sneak to the other side of the room to make gaining combat advantage easier?
These are just some quick thoughts. How do you give the characters a chance to shine in your game?
I've noted my dislike of fragile player characters before. For me, I just don't have the time and patience to get that level of system mastery. Overall, I'm personally much more interested in learning how to develop an interesting story. However, I know lots of people out there love them. In episode 5 of the Girl on Guy podcast by Aisha Tyler, Zachary Levi (of Chuck fame) gives one of the best explanations of what he loves about them. The conversation starts at around the 54 minute mark. He really misses Ghost Recon because the fragility of the character (one shot could kill you) forced you to depend on your teammates and work on strategy. His description of his first time playing Ghost Recon is really awesome.
Now I admit, I think he's right. When characters don't die easily and when they don't have to go beyond themselves to get things done, it's hard to get the players to do anything other than fight. When they do fight, it's generally in an overly bold manner. In D&D, unless the entire party is built around stealthy characters, this usually means the fighter kicks open the door and someone says something along the lines of "Let's do this." Now, this can be a lot of fun, but after game 10 of the same style I know I'm left craving something a little more.
I don't think you need to weaken the characters to change this. One reason why weakened characters push people towards strategic play is because there is a consequence to the bold style of play. It's likely to get your character killed. But we could provide other consequences instead, hopefully aligned to the sensibilities and goals of the players and their characters.
That's the hard part though. While, weakened characters work across games, genres, and settings, rewards for thoughtful play vary wildly, require player buy-in, and rely on GM skill. How do provide these consequences without creating a railroad or making them too arbitrary? How do you get player buy in? How do you get new players into the game without making them feel like sidekicks or n00bs? Lots of games have their own solutions for these and related questions, everything from cooperative world building before or during the game like Dresden Files to the beliefs system in Burning Wheel. It's this area of game design and play that has my attention right now. I don't have any answers yet, just questions.
Writing. I know I haven't done a ton of that on here for a bit. I had a super flurry of creativity freelancing and in my day job. It really cut into my desire and, in some ways, ability to write. Add on top of that my natural inclination to put ever more pressure on myself and this little text area became something to avoid. So I've spent some time thinking about that. Then I spent time thinking about anything but that. I saw some movies, lived a little, and just tried to be.
One of the things that has gotten to me lately has to do with issues of gender in gaming. Believe it or not, while the issue is very important to me, I don't define myself by it. I don't seek to be the gender in gaming person. But because I'm so passionate about the issue, it becomes hard to stay out of it. I will write about it here from time to time.
So why even write this? Because I just need to write. I need a space to be, well me. That's what I always tried to do with this site. And I hope you all are ok with that. If you've wondered why I've been quiet, it's a mixture of all these things. I'm putting those things behind me now and I'm just going to write. It won't all be wonderful. I guarantee it will suck at times. But it will be me.
So what has me excited? I'm so glad you asked:
I saw Tilt Factor at Gen Con. The person running it is a professor at my alma mater, Dartmouth College, which is freaking awesome. A few of the undergrads running the booth even knew people I know from the school which was an unexpected surprise. Tilt Factor's tagline is "game design for social change." Their game Pox is an excellent example of this. It's a board game where you attempt to isolate an infectious disease from the population while minimizing deaths. Most people die if they are surrounded by infected people, but there are some people on the board with compromised immune systems. If the infection spreads to them, they instantly die. Your tools are to cure 1 person or vaccinate 3. A deck of cards controls the other events in the game including which directions the disease spreads in and other events. I had a ton of fun playing the game and it definitely reinforced the lessons of cures versus vaccinations.
I know, I've decried canon before. I still look at it pretty warily, but I love the move in recent D&D books to include a more detailed world. This is especially true with the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. The accompanying Facebook game is pretty fun too and serves as a good introduction to me for the setting. I often have a hard time reading setting books because they try to pack so much information into too few pages. But slowly exploring the word and circling outward helps tremendously.
We picked up a number of Pathfinder books at GenCon. My husband started playing about 6 years before 4e came out so he has a certain nostalgia for 3/3.5 and Pathfinder brings that back for him. One of the books we got was Ultimate Combat which contains guns! I love the mechanics for the gunslinger class and I can't wait to run a Western themed game with him. He's a big fan of Westerns. I grew up reading lots of books set in the American West. I often daydreamed of being a cowboy or a Native American in a tribe. So I think this wil be so much fun.
Another Gen Con purchase, I'm enjoying this book so far. One thing I particularly like is the presentation of demo or sample scenarios and the accompanying, why this is important. The why is so important. Sure, I won't be world-class GM just from reading the book, I need to practice and refine my skills, but seeing the wide array of ideas and then put them to the test myself is awesome. I'm still think there's a lot of Burning Wheel that will interfere with my enjoyment of it, but the ideas in the Adventure Burner and the BW system are well worth the cost.
Well that's what I have so far. Don't worry, I have even more stuff from Gen Con to write about along with other stuff here and there.
Every convention I attend, I try to run games for people through the RPGA, especially Learn to Play. Given how few hours there are in a con and the number of directions I get pulled in at these things, that might seem like it's not the best use of my time. But I'm firmly committed to doing it for a number of reasons: giving back to the community, being an agent of change, and learning more about the game and its players so I can be a better gamer/DM/writer/wood nymph.
One of the things to know about cons is that a fair number of the attendees haven't played for years, if at all, and don't have a home game. This is particularly true at the Learn to Play tables. If no one runs a game for them at the con, they might go another year without rolling dice, especially if they don't have a FLGS or if it doesn't run public play events like Encounters. It becomes harder to overcome the fear and anxiety that newer players sometimes have. Will I be ok at this? Are the rules too hard for me? Will my friends laugh at me because I don't know who Vecna is? I know I worried about that stuff before I started playing and I've had a number of you confess that you do as well. In my opinion, the single most important thing I can do at a con then is to run games for others, help them have fun and hopefully get them to the point where they will play at home. It's my way of giving back to the awesome role-playing game community and a commitment that I take seriously.
Now, I could just sit here on this blog or on twitter and chat about how important these things are. I could lecture and chastise and basically make a bunch of people angry at me. I can say how the DMs in the RPGA aren't all the same and that we have a number of high quality DMs out there. But that's just not me. I want to be on the floor as much as possible showing people that there are many ways to play. When my group sits down at my table, I try to talk to them and figure out what sort of experience they are looking for. Do they take D&D very seriously? Great, it's not what I'm best at, but I'll do my damnedest to make it work. Do they want to have a beer and pretzels kind of game, even at 8 am on a Friday morning? Awesome! The dark, mysterious stranger flirts back with the naughty rogue (as long as the table seems ok with it of course). In my opinion, that's how we change opinions about our game and our DMs and get people seeing the game in the way that makes them happiest.
I learn so much from every game, even the ones I do really well or really poorly at. For example, one of my first tables had a number of older edition players who weren't incredibly happy with some elements of 4e. I think it was my first table of the con and it was really hard for me to translate between editions when they started asking me where cure light wounds was, where the spells were, and why the cleric didn't heal. Arcana and religion checks to do things like disable or activate runes didn't help either since to me, they are spells or prayers but that didn't make sense to them. In some ways, I think 4e was just too free-form for them. On one hand, I empathized and wished I could make it all make sense in a 2 hour game. But as someone who came in with 4e, it just makes sense to me and is so hard to translate. I gave them the best game I could with what I had (I'll have to write about my problems with the Red Box some other time), but it still saddens me that I couldn't do more for them. But you'll be sure that I'll keep this sort of thing in mind when I write or run in the future.
Beyond these reasons, it's just good to get outside of my comfort zone. I know my group pretty well and so as I game I get surprised less and less. For our game play, that's great. But as a writer and fledgling designer, that's really bad. I start making assumptions about my audience and don't always describe things as well as I could. I also get rusty at improv and quick DM rulings.
So those are some of the reasons I run at conventions. Do you run for strangers, maybe through organized play? If so, why?
My first ever Kobold Quarterly article came out in the huge Summer/GenCon issue, #18. My article focuses on minotaurs, and while I might be a tad biased, I think it's awesome. While it ties into their place in the Midgard setting, many of the ideas in the article can easily be used in other settings. Also, while it has the 4e designation attached, very little of the article is crunch, just a table of minotaur knowledge using 4e DCs and a few boons tied to professions.
I wrote this article back in March which was a crazy month for me. For some reason, my writing assignments tend to come in batches and almost always due right around a con. So that month I had PAX East (with the DM challenge), part of a fortune cards article for the Wizards of the Coast website, and this article. While that might not seem like a lot, with a full time job and a bunch of podcasts, it was a bit daunting. What made me even more nervous was that this 1) was an ecology article for Kobold Quarterly, 2) was about minotaurs a race that many people love and which has a long history in D&D, 3) would set some of the canon of Midgard and 4) that Wolfgang likes minotaurs so I knew he would be giving it an especially close look.
My first step was to spend some time familiarizing myself with minotaurs and what was written about them already. Sometimes this is a bit harder for me because I don't have a huge library of D&D sourcebooks. But between the Internet and talking to a couple of people, I found a fair bit of material to use as my base. I also searched through the Midgard forums for anything I thought would be useful for this article. Overall, I spent about 10 days on a combination of research and letting ideas grow. My husband was kind enough to serve as my sounding board and listen to me get excited about things like horn carvings (based off of military or gang tattoos) and ritualized combat.
Next came the writing. I'm not sure how others write, but I tend to write in layers. The first part is filling in the outline. Whatever comes to me that might be interesting goes in. For this article, that meant a lot of uses for mazes since they are one of the key characteristics of the minotaur. This meant everything from coming up with the first blood ritual (done when children turn into adolescents, based on a combination first communion and ritual combat from the Paksenarrion series) to a description of minotaur sailors seeing the ocean's winds as a large labyrinth to navigate. Not everything stayed in the article, but it was good to get it all out on the screen. Once I had a bunch of ideas on the page, it was time to organize and refine them, the first round of editing. Then for each cycle after that, it was about making the whole thing more coherent and tied together along with finer details, such as the colors for the First Blood maze and the minotaur librarian profession.
I also tried to make sure there was something for a broad array of players. I listen to a lot of the chatter about D&D on twitter and elsewhere and I know while there are lots of players who would never go against type, a fair number of people want some broader options. That's why I included the librarian profession and tried to include some non-combat focused options as well. I also tried to maintain a balance between pushing the boundaries from the past and respecting the legend and lore of the game.
So that's the background of the minotaur article. I hope you find it useful in your games, even if it's just to inspire you to do something of your own. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Finally, in case you haven't heard, SarahDarkmagic.com is up for an ENnie award for Best Blog. I'm really honored to be on the list with other great blogs such as Critical Hits, Gnome Stew, At-Will and Thistle Games. If you haven't voted yet, please go and do so.