System versus Game

A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that one of the things that makes discussing 4e D&D difficult is that it has two parts. On one hand, we have a rules system, largely divorced from any particular setting, which tells us how to keep things balanced and hopefully fun for everyone at the table. On the other, we have the game, set often, but not always, in a world based to some degree on medieval fantasy. The core rulebooks reinforced this divide, separating out much of the canonical story and just providing the bare essentials to support the stories being developed at individual tables. The setting books were tasked with modifying the core so that it fit best with the stories common to those settings.

To be honest, while I sometimes had a hard time picturing certain monsters, I loved this system. It allowed me to easily create any story I wanted without having to find all the ways in which my story was different from canon. However, it made the game less approachable to a fair number of players. What I've gotten from the conversations I've had is that the way they like to tell D&D stories didn't fit as well into the existing expressions of the core system.

For someone who doesn't share that problem, the common reaction is to "blame the victim." If those people were only more creative or would just open their minds a bit, things would be better. This is a weak argument and one I loathe. We all have our personal preferences when it comes to which stories we like to tell or consume and the truth is that for some people it breaks their suspension of disbelief to have fighter dailies. Arguing against it doesn't make any sense, just like telling me that fighters can't have dailies is a futile exercise that only leads to frustration and perhaps booze.

Now the awesome thing, at least in my mind, of having these two layers to D&D is that both parties can be happy. Nothing in the core rules says that a fighter needs to have dailies. I realize it looked that way from PHB1 but we, the outside fans and players, have never seen the actual core system, the math and algorithms they use to determine what is balanced and what is not. What it does mean, however, is that each individual slice will get less of the overall creative time, especially the older philosophies since so much already exists for them. Also, some of 4e's simplicity will be lost since it didn't support all play styles either. This does make teaching the game to others a bit harder, but it's a problem I'm willing to live with if it means we get more people into the game.

Anyways, that's my feelings on the matter, expressed in a way that just isn't possible in 140 characters.

New York Comic Con Schedule

New York Comic Con is just around the corner and I'm so excited to go. Unlike previous cons, I'm running a lot of games for the RPGA at this one and my schedule is pretty free otherwise. For those who are interested, here is my game schedule as it stands right now. My understanding is that we'll be at the Wizard's booth.

10:00 - 12:00 Delve
1:00 - 5:00 Gamma World
5:00 - 7:00 Encounters

11:00 - 1:00 Encounters
5:00 - 7:00 Encounters

11:00 - 1:00 Encounters
3:00 - 5:00 Encounters

I think an extended weekend of pure fun is just what the doctor ordered. I can't wait to go.

As a side note, my good friend Blair Shedd will be at the con as well. He worked on the IDW Doctor Who comic.

On Confidence and Trust

In Death to Dungeons, I tried to give a more specific example of how a lack of confidence and trust affects me as a player, and particularly as one newer to the game. I think the conversation that resulted is wonderful in large part because it made people talk about what they love about dungeons and the game itself.

However, parts of it bothered me deeply and point to a behavior that kept me away from the game for over a decade and a half. I'm a very live and let live person. When someone says they have a problem with something I really enjoy, my response isn't that there is something wrong with that person or even with the thing that I enjoy. Not everyone is going to like everything.

Yet, when I express my likes and dislikes and how those preferences affect my ability to enjoy the game, I often get a variety of responses that feel like there must be some fault with me. Personally, I really don't enjoy underground environments, it's not my thing. I'm not a fan of them in movies, in books or even in video games. It's not from a lack of imagination. It's not from a lack of a good DM. It's personal preference, pure and simple, and is not meant as an affront to anyone who enjoys them.

My issue with responses that "it's a game of fantasy, just use your imagination", is that playing a game like D&D often takes some level of confidence and trust. I need to weave the narrative of my character with those of my fellow players and DM. Her actions need to make sense in the context of the greater whole. When most of the players have the same cultural literacy and background, that's a lot easier. But the truth is much of my background feels vastly different from those of people I've played with. When I play, I'm putting myself out there, faults, story preferences, and all, for someone else to see and possibly judge.

When I started playing, I was faced with a dilemma. On one hand, I wanted to have that experience of learning as I went. I wanted to learn that trolls regenerate by having one I thought was dead attack me from behind. Those are some awesome stories to tell later. On the other hand, I was so afraid of disappointing my group by not knowing something. This lead me to take a back seat in the game, for the most part letting them make the decisions and just reacting to them. I felt I just didn't know enough about the game or its world to be useful beyond my dagger. Add on top of that the fact we were in a dungeon crawl environment with no appeal to me, and I almost gave up playing right then. In fact, one of the main reasons I didn't give up was that when I first started one of the guys in the group said it might happen and I didn't want to prove him right.

And that's why I suggested that sometimes it's good to leave the "dungeon" and introduce new players like me to a wider world of D&D, one that is closer to their own experiences or story preferences. If we had been playing a game that involved tracking down a pack of wolves who were terrorizing the town, I would have had more confidence in my ideas leading to a more active role in the game. As my confidence and trust in the group grew, we could have moved to other locales, ones I wasn't as familiar with, and I would have been more engaged and less stressed about learning so many new things at once. A lot of worry and anxiety might have never existed.

Anyways, those are my 2 cents on the matter.

NPCs of Newham Shire

What I love most about D&D are the stories I get to tell. In the course of my simple little campaign in Newham Shire, we explored quite a few plot lines, although not always to completion. In addition, my group collected a merry little band of NPCs who I absolutely love. I'd love to beg your indulgence as I share a few of them with you.

Hallomak Stromm
Ok, I didn't come up with the name. He is mentioned in the level 11 Dungeon Delve. For some god forsaken reason I decided to run that one for my brother as my second attempt at DMing. Hey when I go for something, I go for it. But the guys in my game wanted to learn more about poor Hallomak and so I made him a focal point of the start of my campaign.

Hallomak is a paladin of Melora. His family was named the guardians of Arcadia during the age of legend, before it was covered in ice by the gods. For 1500 years, they and their scribes painstakingly copied and recopied the lore books of the old world so that when they returned they would still have the knowledge of the ages of song and legend.

However, before they could return and take their rightful place as leaders of the land, one of the Darkmagics pieced together the location of Arcadia and returned early, founding Newham Shire and naming himself the rightful human ruler.

Hallomak is fine with this order of things. The truth is, not having to rule Newham gives him time to be its protector. He runs a school of agriculture, teaching sustainable agriculture to those who will listen. In addition, he has a side project creating a replacement for Ironwood in ship building. The importance of this project is heightened because the elves in the northern woods are getting upset at the humans who are logging those trees.

His wife though, did not see things this way, and she filled their son's mind with visions of grandeur. Because of this, Reginald joined up with the Free Arcadia Now (FAN) group and is the leader of the organization in Barmouth.

Dionysus Spriggan
Still one of my favorite encounters, we had the classic trolls under the bridge scene. Only they were spriggans. The PCs killed all of them but one, who they then interrogated. At one point the bard says he will let the spriggan live if he promises to live a good life. At that point, Dionysus was born. He readily replied that he would love to live the good life. Of course, his definition was a bit different from theirs. With that promise, they gave him a few gold from the treasure they collected and sent him off on his way.

A few weeks later, they found out what the merry little spriggan was up to. Turns out he always wanted to run his own bar, but his older brothers forced him into a life of banditry. He took the coins, scrounged up some building supplies and finally fulfilled his life's passion. He opened a bar, in the middle of the woods. Everyone is welcome so long as they respect the neutrality of the place.

An early encounter involved a small number of burglars with guard dogs trying to break into Hallomak's house. The PCs woke up in the middle of the night and uncovered the attempt. They defeated the robbers and one of the two guard dogs, but the second one got away. The next morning they tracked down the dog and defeated its owner. At that point, the player of the halfling rogue, Finnan, asked if he could make the dog his, which I allowed with the caveat that he couldn't really attack. Hence, Chompers was born and he's been a great companion of the group ever since.

Well those are a few NPCs from our game. What are some of the favorites from yours?

Freshly Stocked for Your Enjoyment

The title of my last post, Death to the Dungeon, was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. I think dungeons should be in every dungeon master's toolbox, but I find it just as important to note that they should be one of many. The reason I have this on my mind is the excellent article by Robert Schwalb, "Reexamining the Dungeon." I don't intend this to be a reaction to his article. Rather, this is just where my mind wandered after reading his post.

My problem with most dungeons is that the way we create them often reinforces a disconnect between player and game. For some D&D players, dungeons are meant to be self-contained, isolated little bundles of XP and loot, playgrounds for the adventurers so they will stay out of town and stop annoying the locals. Heck, sometimes I wonder if the townspeople purposefully stock them with monsters just for that reason, but that's another post.

Likewise, I've found many people design dungeons by first laying out the rooms and passageways and then determining what should go into them. People tend to like their dungeons a bit on the large size, at least large enough to span 3 sessions or so. Too often, this means we either run into the problem of too much sameness, how many different orc groups can we have, or too much diversity and artificial separation, the zombies never go upstairs for a snack nor do they go down the hall to the goblin lair for one either. When the story is built around the dungeon, rather than the other way around, it can feel inorganic and forced. Leading to interplays like the following, Player: "Wait, how did 20 goblins survive down here with no food and water and traps too powerful for them to get out." DM: "There used to be 50."

I also worry that dungeons reinforce the feeling that players have very few options available to them, and, because of that, every choice counts. While a bit of this is important, when I play in a dungeon environment, my mind fills with this meta-game thinking. I become too scared to do anything lest it cause harm to the rest of my party. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that in many of the dungeons I've played in or read, the interactive points have just one right answer and a series of wrong ones. They often rely on my cleverness as a player rather than what my character would think or feel and not being clever enough means that my group loses out on something. Instead of exploring, I shut down and let the rest of the group take the lead, except they are just as nervous as I am and don't do it either.

I'm not saying that any of this is wrong for everyone or is inherent in everything that might be called a "dungeon." A lot of people like traditional dungeon design and people should play what they love. But, I do worry that sometimes we don't realize that dungeons, particularly to veteran gamers, have an implied method of play that is different from other environments. One that, at times, is counterproductive to the type of game experience we seek unless we've been trained to view them a certain way.

Death to the Dungeon

Dungeon from from & Dragons creates its own culture and language through the extensive use of fantasy tropes such as Vancian Magic. To at least some of the uninitiated, these bits of shorthand form a wall between them and the game. For instance, a spellcaster forgetting a spell after casting makes no sense to me and still breaks my suspension of disbelief.

However, in my mind, that break is nothing compared to dungeon design. I'll admit up front that I'm no fan of dungeons. I realize it's part of the game's name and that many D&D veterans love them, but big dungeons full of monsters around the party's level and of untouched treasure lead me to, well, call shenanigans.

I realize I'm not the first, and will by no means be the last, to say this. But I think as we try to bring new people into the hobby and try to encourage them to do some role-playing in addition to roll-playing, we need to consider that sometimes the disconnect might not have anything to do with whether or not fighter has a daily "power." For some new players, it's near impossible to connect with a place they've never visited[1]. For instance, I've never been to the desert so I have a hard time placing my character in a world where the sand stings her eyes as she feels the intense heat radiating off the ground. I know those things happen, but I have a harder time feeling them.

On the other hand, throw me into the middle of the woods and I know what to do. Tracking something? I'd like to look for footprints in the ground, animal droppings and broken twigs please. Want to trap a wild boar instead of chasing it around? Great, let's get some rope, a young tree and set up a snare, or dig a pit, weave together some thin branches and throw a bunch of leaves on top. I'll have it for you in a jiffy.

The difference is I've seen and interacted with the forest before so I have a much better idea of what is and isn't possible in that world and, thus, feel more confident that my ideas have a chance of working. As I gain that confidence, I'll be more willing to role-play in a foreign world, such as a dungeon. At this point, some may say, well you've read and seen the Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels. While that's true, I think a big gap exists between consuming these stories and feeling engaged enough with the typical fantasy world to create your own.

So, while I agree with Rob Donoghue that dungeons might be a good tool for newer DMs, I would like to suggest to more experienced DMs that they look outside of the dungeon for adventures for newer players. The key is to still limit or make clear the options the new players have, lest they fall to analysis paralysis. Give them some clear call to action but let them explore areas that have echoes to their real world. Find out their backgrounds, are they city or country folks and what are their favorite books? What games did they play as a child and what stories did they like to act out? Create a world out of the elements they know the best, give them adventure hooks that easily feel real to them, sprinkle in elements they know how to play with such as fruit carts, and create a safe environment for role-playing.

1. This issue is brought up a fair bit in education policy. Many critics state that some reading comprehension tests are unfair to disadvantaged groups because they often cover topics foreign to those students. For instance, an essay on a person's first fishing trip may be unintentionally more difficult for many inner-city youth since not only do they have to complete the normal reading comprehension questions but they also need to figure out what fishing is if they've never done it.

Putting the Wonder Back in Wondrous

Unfortunately, many of my discussions on twitter of late have focused on one little gripe I have with the Essentials line. What I would like to do for a moment is to shift focus away from that and talk about what I do love about the new books, starting with magic item rarity.

As a new DM, magic items gave me a lot of grief. I feared my players would not be as content with a standard +1 sword when they could, at least in their mind, have a flaming +1 sword of doom complete with a magic item daily power. Also I really hadn't had the time to learn how the various items affect their character builds, at least not enough to dole out magic items on a consistent basis. So I asked for wish lists, which often were filled with the most magical of magic items and the magic items themselves lost a bit of their wonder.

To address this problem, and to bring back a bit of the magic of older editions, WotC introduced magic item rarity. Now I know some of my friends roll their eyes at this, but I happen to really like it. Many items are still common, you can buy your amulet of protection and boots of stealth anywhere fine magic items are sold, although finding those shops or craftsmen might take a little time. The more uncommon items, however, are now something to be found.

So what does this do? First, it guides DMs to making magic items part of the story instead of cheap fashion accessories (a low shot, I know). Really want that feyleather armor? You may want to check out the elven enclaves in the city. Who knows what else you might find there.

Second, it makes the choice of magic items more important and which ones you choose help define your character. According to the new Rules Compendium, players should gain one rare item per tier of play. Since these rare items will often have multiple powers and be a bit more complex, they will be the defining items your character carries. For me, I'm going to work very closely with players when picking these out or creating our own. Uncommon items will comprise about half the magic items characters find in treasure. These items tend to have one power associated with them, again giving flavor to the character who possesses them.

Lastly, this rarity system allows us to bring back truly wondrous magic items. Sure, we had the artifacts system before this and my guess is that the rare items will look pretty similar to them. But since the PCs can't pick them up at their corner store, these items won't overpower the game.

So, I'm really looking forward to this part of the game. My stories will make more sense, the treasure won't feel quite as bolted on and overall I think it will lead to a better experience at the table. How about you? Are you going to use the rarity system?

Review: rpgKids v.1.5

Kids are natural storytellers and role players as those two tools help them understand the world. However, introducing young children to roleplaying games is often difficult, because many of the game systems used by adults are a bit too complicated for them. Thankfully, Enrique Bertran, from, created a system for kids 4 -7 called rgpKids.

The rules of the game are very simple and people who've played D&D will understand most of them right away. Players choose from four types of heroes: sword fighters, healers, archers and wizards. Each hero type has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Fighters and healers need to get into the thick of things while archers and wizards get to hit their targets from afar. Attacks are done using an opposed roll, lowering the amount of information one needs to remember, important when playing with little kids. However, the game does introduce simple tactics in that a group of allies can give both monsters and heroes an advantage when they attack.

The game also provides a simple skill lists exists to help with the exploratory phase of the game, if that is something the group is interested in. Children that age can have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time, so the amount of exploration depends on the players. All heroes are given 3 skills, one of them is always search. The two other skills given to each hero are tied to what makes him or her different from the other heroes. For instance, the archer gets animal friendship and tracking while the sword fighter gets strength and intimidate.

In addition to the rule set, the game provides an adventure, The Lair of the Frog Wizard, complete with maps and tokens. The setup is simple and provides ample opportunity for parents and kids to let their imaginations run wild. An evil wizard is turning some of the townspeople into frogs and to prove it, the sheriff shows the heroes his deputy, Rufus. I can totally imagine the giggles of little children who hear their parents say "Ribbbbitttt!" as the sheriff introduces the poor deputy. In addition, the heroes can befriend a group of wolves who will teach them a howl which can aid them in their quest. It reminds me a lot of the types of stories my parents used to share when I was a child.

Overall, I think it's a great game for young children. It provides just enough of a framework to give it some structure and order, while allowing the imagination to run free. To be honest, I'm half tempted to play it as an adult, for those times when we just want to play a game. If you want to see the author play some of the game with his child, see the video below.

Setting the Scene

In my last post, I mentioned that some people wish to do away with boxed text. This caused a fair bit of discussion on Twitter and ended with me admitting that I often feel lost on how to set a scene in D&D, particularly for published adventures.

For me at least, I have a hard time knowing how much information to give all the PCs at the beginning, after they've entered a new room. I've read the warnings about DM monologues and reading 6 paragraphs of boxed text. I realize that coming up with and conveying lots of intricate detail is more about self-pleasure than it is about being useful to the players.

Sometimes I feel like I know a ton about what I'm not supposed to do and very little about what I should. Add to this that I’m probably learning to DM in the reverse of how you should, meaning I’m a newer DM for experienced (and smart) players, and my anxiety gets pretty high. I'm thinking through this problem in hopes that some of my ideas will help those of you in a similar position and that I can get some tips from you all.

First, I should detail a few assumptions on my part. To me, every scene should have a place in the story and should have the chance of revealing at least one detail about it. I say chance, because players should always have the choice to not care about the story the DM wants to tell. I'm not a big fan of encounters for the sake of XP alone. I also try to give my players hints about what's going on without hitting them over the head with a big clue stick but DMs, and groups, will vary on how they feel about that.

When creating or reading a scene, I like to list the goals for it. What about this scene is important enough to have us play it out? If it's to spot the item they need to retrieve, I need to provide clues that the item is in the room or, at the very least, that they might want to more thoroughly search an area or two. If it's to introduce an NPC, the descriptions I give should reinforce what they should remember about him or her. The problem I have with many published adventures is I often don’t immediately grok why this scene is there.

Once I understand the goals, I start working on the details, or as I like to call it, the “texture.” When I create encounters, these details work together to tell the story. So if I’m dealing with a scene where the PCs should guess that the tailor maybe isn’t everything he claims to be, some of the details I might write down are overly blunt shears, bolts of fabric that look old, a lack of customers, and perhaps an abnormally long wait time on orders. I would also write down hints that point to who he is, in this case perhaps someone dabbling in necromancy which he practices in the basement: an overly scented shop, dim light, an aura of the arcane, and a book left open behind the counter.

With goals and details in hand, I can start playing the scene out in my head. Which items are the PCs likely to notice first and who will notice it. All of the PCs will be able to see or otherwise sense some of this information while other bits are more specialized. For divvying up the latter, it's useful to have a list of their skills and and any modifiers or feats that apply, such as the level of light they can see in. If you can get a summary of their backstory and some of their personality quirks, all the better. You can use the passive skill scores to guide you as you decide what information they might know.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it can be, especially for a newer DM. The brain has an awesome ability to recognize and assimilate patterns, but it takes time to do so. A newer DM just hasn’t seen hundreds of encounters and maybe hasn’t seen another person DM yet, so they have to do a lot more conscious work. The nice thing about boxed text, when done correctly, is that can serve as a short-cut for creating those patterns. Running encounters is a bit easier because a lot of the hard work was done already and, with each one, they get a better idea of how much information to give at the start. In addition, the boxed text can provide the start point for their own hacking, much the same way we hack on monsters.

So while I’m all for moving to another system in modules for more advanced DMs, I hope that something like boxed text sticks around for the beginners. And I hope more products come out for beginners that are focused only on them instead of serving multiple masters. So what about you, how much information do you give out at the beginning of an encounter and create your own boxed text for a published adventure?

Running Red Box for the Crew: Part Two

I've put off writing this post, because, well, it wasn't exactly the best game ever. The weather was a bit grey, many of us were stressed and some background social anxiety was going on. Nothing too major but enough to dampen our spirits a bit as we went into a dungeon.

Ah, dungeons. My group doesn't exactly love dungeons. I've stayed away from them as much as possible in my campaign for that reason. They seem to love investigating city streets, combing through libraries, and studying found objects. Most of them have characters with pretty good social skills and they aren't afraid of using them. So, dungeons aren't their thing exactly.

However, I did learn a few things from this session. First, is that running the Red Box for veteran players can be hard. Since they already know about class builds, they ask all sorts of detailed questions. I can't remember the exact questions asked, but usually the subject was does this feature of class x apply to these builds. I don't know what the correct answer is, but I said if it wasn't in the Red Box player's guide, the answer was no. This scenario makes me wish that they had a simplified character creation guide in the box, something I as a DM could quickly reference when players ask such questions.

Another thing I learned is that it can be difficult to get players to interact with the environment. I struggle with this all the time. I've heard the advice that you shouldn't give a speech to your players at the beginning of a scene (the equivalent of multiple paragraphs of boxed text) yet I still haven't found a good way to make sure I give enough info to the players to pique their interest.

With the movement away from boxed text, I fear new DMs will be as lost as I am. Perhaps it makes sense to do some tutorials on how to present this information. For instance, have a few veteran DMs take an encounter and detail how they would present it to the players. Even one would be nice, but having multiple DMs do this for the same encounter would help newer DMs notice differences of style better.

Finally, I like the random roll tables. It took me a while to come around, but I like being just as surprised as the players about what they get. I learned that back when I created some rumor tables for a skill challenge in my game. My only complaint about the random roll tables is that I wish the items on them were more interesting. Rope and chains are great and all, but I think one of them should have had some interesting clothing to encourage creativity.

One of the upcoming changes to D&D is the move to a rarity system, where items will be common, uncommon and rare. Used well, the change can force players to get more creative with their solutions to problems. Going to an area where falling is a real risk? You can't just buy everyone a Safewing Amulet. Hopefully, rarity combined with random item tables will spark creativity at the table.

So, those are my thoughts from our second session. How about you? Have you played the Red Box yet? What are your thoughts on the character builds?

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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