Tag Archives: Rant

The As-Required-By-Law Kickstarter Post-Mortem

Kickstarter Post-Mortem (Updated 2-25-2014)

As Seemingly Required By Law


So, my first Kickstarter is done. I beat the odds in several ways… it was funded. The product was produced, if not 100% on time, at least mostly under budget. (That is, I paid for all expenses out of the money raised…. with the exception of paying myself for the time involved. At the end, after expenses, I “earned” approximately $0.75/hour, or 1/10th minimum wage.)

So what have we learned?

Writing The Book Was The Easy Part

You’d think actually producing the core product would be the biggest hurdle, and after that, it would all be gravy. Well, that’s not the case. I found this experience an object lesson as to why any argument to the effect of “Dude, publishers and producers and agents are all just parasites feeding off the creative soul! Eliminate the middleman! Fight the power!” is total bull bagels. You know why middlemen exist? Because the skills and knowledge involved in turning a word processor document into an actual book are not instinctive, and time spent on that process is time spent not doing anything creative. I’d estimate it took almost as much time to handle the post-writing work as it did to write the book. Fortunately, a large chunk of that time was learning curve — it will go more smoothly next time. Yes, I’m stupid enough to think there will be a next time.

Figure Out The Art Early

One of the major delays was getting the art done. Some of this was due to Life Happening on the part of the artist, which is unavoidable and in no way his fault — my own current situation is ample proof that the universe is going to kick you in the balls and then shove you off a cliff at the worst possible time. Another part of it was due to me not knowing what scenes I wanted illustrated… or even what scenes would be in the book… until I was done writing it. Ordering art earlier in the creative process runs the risk of being locked into story elements you might later decide to change, but ordering it later means everything is delayed.

Size (And Shape) Matter

Another exciting discovery was that the costs of a book increase dramatically with page count, and that page size reduces page count — and thus cost. The reason so many self-published or small-press books are 6 x 9 is because that’s an optimal point between increasing cost-per-page due to larger pages, and increasing page count due to smaller pages. However, if your art was commissioned at a different height/width ratio… it won’t fit properly. And if you’re running really late getting the book out, you have to bite the bullet and deal with things that aren’t perfectly sized, cropping or scaling and hoping for the best.

Details Matter

Margins matter. Font size matters. Headers/footers, page numbers, and making sure things look good when viewed in a double-page spread as a print book, not just as a scrolling PDF, matter. Some fonts don’t embed properly. These are all things I didn’t know, and had to learn, and each one added to the delays in getting the books out. (And I shall be honest — the final print copy was “acceptable”, not “perfect”. The kerning is a bit off. The inner margin is too narrow. It’s well within the bounds of “readable”, but it could be better, and now I know.)

"Now I know! And knowing is half the battle!"

“Now I know! And knowing is half the battle!”

Software

I figured the only program I needed to know how to use was Word. Bwaahahah! One of the things I learned was that I needed to learn image-editing and image-conversion software… which I didn’t own and didn’t have time to learn. Fortunately, I did have skilled friends who took pity on me. They probably won’t take pity on me a second time, so I  either budget money to pay people for their hard-earned skills and talents, or I budget time and money to learn this stuff myself.

Graphic Design

Seriously, I'm Not

Seriously, I’m Not

I have  very little graphic design sense. Contrary to grade school philosophy, people can and do judge books by their covers. Even with good art, the total design — font choices, placement of title and author, background — had to be good enough to say “This book is professionally written.” Is it logical to judge the quality of the words by the layout of the cover? Somewhat. Just as poor grammar/spelling in a post sends the message “I don’t care enough about my point to write it properly; why should you care enough about it to consider my message?”, sloppy design and layout says, “I don’t care about how the book looks; why should you trust me to care about the plot, characterization, and editing?” So, while I had some placeholder choices for the “late beta” PDF I released when I realized there would be a long delay for the final copy, I knew it wasn’t good enough. Further, the fact the scaling had changed meant understanding appropriate design “tricks” to make the art look good despite having the wrong height/width ratio. Fortunately, as noted, I had friends come to my assistance.

Let It Flow, Let It Flow, Let It Flow…. (Added 2-25-2014)

Something else discovered fairly late in the process. When I was finally getting around to adding in the credits for the backers, I wanted them to look good (and also not increase the page count too much). I knew enough Word stuff to set up alternating sections with different column counts, so I could have a header listing each backer tier, and then a two column list below that, and then the next division, and so on. It did look pretty decent, all in all. Until I converted it to epub. Then it sucked. Why? Because epub and mobi (and probably all other e-reader formats) are designed to flow text across all sorts of screens. They throw away all but the most basic formatting information to allow for maximum flexibility. So, I ended up having two different files (which I have to manually maintain in parallel — if I fix a typo in one, I must go change the other, then re-export both), in order to have one version that looks good in print and one that looks good in silicon. (I understand that “real” layout tools handle this automatically, and by “automatically”, I mean “someone who knows what they’re doing can set them up to do it”.)

General Conclusion: There Is No Magic Book Fairy

Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that all I needed to do was write the book, edit it, and then email a PDF to magicbookfairy@selfpublishing.com, and that would be that. As I learned, not so much. Overall, dealing with art, layout, formatting, and file conversion issues took about 30-40 hours of time. I can probably whack that down to 10-15 now that I know a lot more about what’s required, and that’s going to get factored in to the next budget plan.

A Minor Diversion Into Artsy English Major Stuff

I’m doing another editing pass on Rogue Planet, in preparation for the final push to print. One of the interesting things about writing is when you set aside a document for a while, and then return to it, you can see things differently. Your brain is no longer filling in gaps automatically, and you have a distance from the text that enables you to approach it more objectively, as a reader more than as a writer.

I have read articles from writers that describe how they agonize over symbols and tropes and themes, how they decide that they’re going to use the Burger King Star Wars glasses their protagonist got as a 12 year old as a recurring symbol regarding hope and loss and memory and blah blah blah (I wish I still had mine, they’re apparently worth a bloody fortune now). Me, I don’t do that. I may agonize over extremely trivial details absolutely no one is going to care about, often just to add flavor text to a throwaway bit of dialogue somewhere. (For example, I just now looked up if it was “dialogue” or “dialog”, and the answer I got was “Meh, no one knows.”) I have often said I am not so much a world builder as a world explorer, and when it comes to writing, I am less author and more chronicler. The characters do what they do, and I write it down. When I find writing is difficult, when the words dribble out in the way molasses didn’t in Boston, 1919, it’s because I’m trying too hard to write a story as opposed to report a story.

Any symbolism, patterns, or themes that might appear in my work, therefore, are a total surprise to me, and yet, they’re there. Some literary type reading my work in the future (yeah, right) might see purpose or planning, but my writing, like the universe itself, is a thing in which someone may perceive patterns, not a thing in which patterns were placed. Any apparent order or purpose, in either reality or in my books, is entirely illusory.

Warning: Some extremely minor spoilers for Rogue Planet and the bonus prequel story follow.

In the first chapter of Rogue Planet, I have tossed in a minor bit of characterization regarding a character’s disbelief of living testimony vs. a handful of paperwork. The Official Word As Printed On The Official Form ought to trump any corrections from the actual subject of the document. (One sees this also in Wikipedia editing, where the actual subject of an article is not considered an authoritative source.) Much later in the book, a chunk of plot turns on this same concept, on a larger scale, where automated systems follow their orders to the letter, any contradictory facts be damned! This can be considered “intentional” in that I consider bureaucracy to be both hilarious and tragic, depending on how much hold it has over someone’s life, but I never consciously thought, “I’m going to echo this theme from the beginning to the end of the book.” It’s a trope I am drawn to, so it’s going to show up unless I go out of my way to avoid it. (Trying to write without tropes is a moronic thing to do, but you always get people who think you can tell a story, or create a character, without using any number of established tropes; this is like trying to build a house without using any tools or construction materials.)

Likewise, the cultures of Rogue Planet, descended from “social deviants” (as the characters in the prequel story (currently titled “Approval Not Required”) refer to them) tend to be very focused on deals, bargains, honor, and suchlike. Debt, obligation, and duty are all regularly referenced. A larger part of this is due to genre tropes: Vows, oaths, loyalty, and bonds of honor and friendship are all major aspects of this type of story. Backstabbing weasels are the villains. Today, when I was thinking about “Approval Not Required”, it occurred to me that all the main characters are engaged in plots, counter-plots, manipulations, etc. Without ever consciously intending to do so, I’d created an interesting thematic contrast: The criminal descendants are more concerned with honor and duty than the governing authority that sent their ancestors there in the first place. If I’d sat down and decided “Oh, I’m going to make a Big Statement here”, I think it would have been ham-handed and dull. I didn’t realize that there was a Statement until I looked over the two stories from a bit of a distance. In both cases, the characters, and their actions and values, grew out of the general tone of the story. At the time I was writing Rogue Planet, I had no plans to write the prequel story; as I wrote the prequel story, I was most interested in adding details and background to established facts. I never thought much about “theme” or “concept” or “meaning”.

So my point? Not sure, really. “Don’t believe everything your English teacher tells you” would be one, I suppose. “One of the best parts of creating is being surprised by your own creation” would be another. If I had any shred of religious sentiment, I would argue that this is why a deity would create a universe: To be surprised. As a GM, pretty much the same thing as being a god, only without any hint of respect or admiration, that is definitely one of my motivations: To create a world and then see what players do to it. Being an author is like that, but without the players. You’d think it would make as difference in the degree of surprise, but surprisingly (heh), it doesn’t. The imaginary people that live in my head are nearly as confusing as the presumably non-imaginary people that live outside my head.

Monopoly & D&D

OK, this is going to be very brief, because every second of spare time I have is devoted to looking at cute cat gifs on Buzzfeed writing Rogue Planet.

I’ve commented, often, that the perception of AD&D as being “rules light” has more to do with how many of the rules are ignored, vs. what playing the rules would actually be like. D&D 3e, and its successors, didn’t so much add in “restrictions” as provide rules for actions that were generally playable and well-integrated into the system. (As a simple comparison, using the unarmed combat rules in AD&D required information that, in many cases, the system didn’t provide — such as whether the hobgoblin you’re fighting was wearing a nasal helmet or not. No, I am not making that up. Go check your AD&D 1e DMG.)

Over time, the conflation of “how we played AD&D” with “how AD&D was actually written” has become so great that some people a)Get outraged when I point out, with quotes and page references, that they’re wrong, and b)Insist, and I swear upon whatever shreds of honor and self-esteem I have left that this is a near-virtual paraphrase, not in any way a distortion of meaning, “Playing AD&D by the rules was contrary to the rules.”.

Anyway, there’s a moment of faux-outrage going on over at Gizmodo over some new edition of Monopoly. What’s interesting and relevant is the comments thread, where there’s a debate over whether you collect rent while in jail. Many people insisted, loudly, that you don’t, and that anyone who says otherwise “playing wrong”. Sorry, no. Other way around. The RAW for Monopoly have always said you collect rent while in Jail. Not collecting rent in Jail is a house rule so common, people have confused it with the real rules, which they never read. The game is taught mostly by oral tradition, just like D&D was back in Ye Olde Dayse.

Before I discovered D&D, I was a big Monopoly fan. I bought books on Monopoly strategy — yes, they existed — and memorized various tables on the odds of landing on different squares. (Boardwalk/Park Place are for suckers. The violet-tan-red sequence is the best intersection of probability and ROI.) I took great delight in bringing up the letter of the rules when dealing with those who didn’t know them. (For example, other than in the early game, there’s no good reason to “get out of Jail” early — having three turns where there’s no risk of landing on someone else’s property, while you still collect rent, is great. Remember that, and get some sucker to pay you good money for your GOOJF card.)

Anyway, my point, such as it is, is how the same patterns of behavior assert themselves in countless contexts. People rarely verify their memory against source documents, and often act irrationally when confronted with the conflict — as if being human is a moral failing. The human brain evolved for a much more soft-edged world than ours. Our storage and retrieval mechanisms are “good enough”, because there’s rapidly diminishing returns in increasing accuracy at the cost of speed and storage space. Human memory is very fallible, and the more you reference a distorted memory, the more reinforced the neural pattern that contains it becomes. I suspect that people’s often hostile reaction to being shown that they’re wrong is due to the brain, in essence, protecting its investment in false information. It’s spent a lot of energy digging those neural channels, and to be told that it needs to tear them all up and start over triggers a “double down” reaction. (This is also why, the more implausible and ridiculous something gets, from conspiracy theories to Nigerian scammers to Ponzi schemes, the more fervently people believe. The brain, much like a con artist caught in a lie, can’t just admit the lie, and so frantically piles on one lie after another — except that it’s itself it’s lying to.)

Humanity is badly broken, and there’s no patch forthcoming.

The human brain is bugged.

Patch is not yet available. Please check back.

5e Design Goals, A Question Or Two

So, there’s another design diary up on WOTC’s site, and that means another chance for me to write an inchoate, off-the-cuff rant there, and then post it here, and pretend that it’s content.


I’m a bit confused as to how these lists are created. Firearms rules, for example, can be as simple as crossbow rules: They’re a weapon, they do damage, boom, done. They can also be complex, with rules for powder measuring, firing in damp conditions, wheellocks vs. matchlocks vs. flintlocks, etc. They’re an example of a concept or option that can be iterated through multiple levels of complexity.

The idea of “only one rules change at a time” is likely to frustrate those people most likely to want advanced rules, and it goes against the concept of modularity. If the core system is fine, then, grid based combat built on the core, and hit locations built on the core, work fine, because each replaces a different module — in programming terms, each is a subclass of a different root class. The grid rules that determine where you are and how this affects your chance to hit should not care what happens after you’re hit — if your armor is DR or if your hit location matters. If there are such effects, it is the “after hit” rules that should contain them, and inform the grid rules of what’s happened (“I’ve been hit in my legs, I’m at -5′ speed for 1d4 rounds.”) The grid rules only care about “your speed”, they don’t care if some other rule has modified it.

Likewise, if we use a spell point system, we can’t have hit locations? Why not? I really don’t see your underlying logic here, in terms of how you decide to wall off one section of rules from another, or decide you can only pick one option from column A, two from column B, and free egg roll if ordering for four or more.

More 5e Comments

Yet another attempt to leverage the random, off-the-cuff drivel I spout on other gaming sites into an “article” here. Hey, the site’s free. You get what you pay for… including my constantly reusing that lame excuse when I post content I know is sub-par.

Anyway, Mike Mearls has posted an essay on class design that’s as free-flowing, digression-filled, and vague as anything I’ve ever written, so, I felt obliged to offer a response, that serves to also frame my own thoughts on game design and what makes a good game.

If you don’t read this article first, the following reply will make even less sense than usual.

a)Why not “Maneuver Dice”, since they tie into the Maneuver System? Calling them “damage dice” and then using them for non-damage is really poor naming. (How about “Action Dice”?)

b)Every time you say “simpler”, “for purposes of simplicity”, “to make things easier”, etc, I die a little inside. We’re gamers. We don’t need things simple when that simplicity comes at the cost of variety and depth.

c)A class’s story, place in the world, etc, is the province of the DM. A class’s mechanics is the province of the designers. If the class is not mechanically interesting, fun, etc, no one will play it, and that story will not be told. You guys handle the rules; leave the story to us.

d)A monk’s abilities may be “magical” in the plain English sense, “abilities that defy the normal laws of physics”, but they should not be “magical” in the game mechanic sense — they should not be affected by anti-magic fields, or detected with “Detect Magic”, or affect a creature vulnerable to “magic” or be hindered by a resistance to “magic”. WORDS MATTER IN RULES. Don’t say “magical” if you don’t mean “magic as a game mechanic/keyword”. If you DO mean that… please reconsider. A monk’s abilities, for purposes of that “role in the world” and “story” you’re always on about, should not be “magic” in the same same sense spells are.

e)Drop the alignment requirement. THAT is something that’s “story”, and while it’s good to have a note that “most monks are lawful”, it should not be mandated for D&D in general, though it might be part of a specific setting. It would be interesting to have different ki powers available based on being lawful or chaotic, though.

 

 

The Magic Of Magic

The Magic Of Magic

Once again, this a is reply to, and expansion of, some of the WOTC articles on 5e. Here’s the original article, and here’s my (two) original replies, and after this, we’ll get even more ways to say the same thing using slightly different words.

First off, let’s put a stake through the heart of the myth that magic items used to be “rare” or “mysterious”. Everyone had all the rulebooks and memorized them, as far back as the game existed. To the extent there was every any mystery, it was always for new players who hadn’t yet memorized the rules, and trying to reclaim that feeling is like trying to get back your virginity. Ain’t gonna happen. As for rare… two words: Monty Haul.

If you decide that you won’t build in the assumption that players will gain magic items, then, you basically break the game’s math, because they WILL gain them, in great profusion. If you scale monsters and difficulty levels on the assumption most players won’t have magic items, that’s like designing a video game on the assumption most players won’t go to hint sites or read guidebooks. It’s just not how things work, or how things EVER worked, and I’m really worried that people caught up in this nostalgia kick are apparently doing no research as to how games ACTUALLY PLAYED back in the 1970s and 1980s, and how most of the design decisions being rejected were the direct consequence of fixing actual old school play, not rose-colored fantasies of a playstyle that never was.

That said, having backstory and myth and cool minor powers attached to magic items is something any competent DM does all the time; it’s nice if this is mentioned in the rules and guidelines provided, but it’s hardly the sort of thing we’ve all been waiting on the rules to “let” us do. It’s baseline DMing, it’s what we do by instinct. Also, and this is important, it’s done for our own pleasure, as players either a)ignore such fluff, or, b)obsess insanely over it, warping the entire campaign over some off-hand bit of color, because somehow it’s got stuck in their minds that this is the key to EVERYTHING and the DM wouldn’t have put it there if they weren’t meant to pursue it at all costs.

Second reply:

Just to elaborate, here’s the reality of actual play:
DM:”You see an odd suit of armor. It is formed of battered dark iron, inset with many pieces of stone, all in tones of greys and blacks, such as smoky dark quartz and obsidian mosaics that form primitive, but intricate, patterns. There are signs that the suit has seen much battle,  as it is dented and scraped, although clearly still sturdy and wearable. The helmet for the suit is hammered into the shape of a bull’s head, and…”

Player: “Right, gorgon armor. +2, immune to petrification, yadda yadda. Page 125 in the DMG. Does anyone wear plate? Oh, and if he’s handing this out, it means we’re going to be facing medusae or basilisks or something, everyone make sure you’ve got Scrolls Of Protection From Petrification at the ready. Oh, I guess, technically, I should roll to know that… roll…. 24 on my arcane knowledge check, there, that’s done, what’s the next item we looted? It better be a +2 sword, I’ve been carrying this +1 piece of crap for three levels now. Cheapass DM!”

THAT’S the reality of play, from 1974 to 2012, and beyond, and nothing in the rules can change it.

Now, let me go on a bit…

Consider the following:

“The blade, known in lore as Restgiver, is a greatsword in form, the general style and artistry reflective of the Theatian culture which forged. The hilt is of bone, reputed to be of a lich, and carved with patterns of skulls deformed in seeming terror. The blade itself is of metal so pale as to seem almost white. Histories tell that it was forged from the fragments of blades taken from such beings as liches, death knights, and skeleton warriors, and it was tempered in both holy water and in the ectoplasm of ghosts bound to the forge where it was made. Its innate magics make it lighter, sharper, and faster than even the finest mundane blade, making it a fit prize for any warrior, but it shows its purpose when it confronts the undead, as it is designed to give them rest. When wielded against any once-living being still animated by foul magics, it is even deadlier than a normal blade of its ilk would be, and it cuts and bites into the faintest wisp of a ghost or a phantom as if they were made of solid flesh. While it has no true soul or spirit animating it, those who wield it report that they feel some sense of warmth or joy when the prospect of returning the dead to their grave is mentioned in its presence.”

And

“Greatsword +2 bane (undead), ghost touch”.

They’re both the same thing.

The rules exist to give you the tools to make the latter. Adding the former is up to you; the rules can’t give you that.

(Oh, and I just posted most of that back on WOTC’s boards anyway; so it goes. It’s not like anyone’s paying for this site.)

A History Of Facile Video Game Comparisons

In Convenient Chart Format

Year Edition Video Game
2000 Third
2008 Fourth
2012 Fifth

Discuss.

D&D 5e: Hit Points

Another in my highly irregular series of “crap I wrote on WOTC’s board that I’m reposting here in order to pretend I have content”.

OK, first of all, you need to read this, which is Mike Mearls’ take on hit points in 5e. Not “D&D Next”. Please. “5e”.

So here’s what I wrote in reply:

Mrrrm…. I sort of like the concept, but I have a few issues. First, while it’s mostly a matter of narrative, we’ve always tended to describe injuries as dramatically increasing in severity as we approach 0 hit points, not “He’s a little battered” right up until he goes negative. Sure, that’s a matter of habit and custom and 35 years of DMing, but it’s a hard habit to break. :)  Perhaps more importantly, if you define hit points this way, then how does a DM narrate, say, an impaling attack that causes someone to be pinned? (Many 4e powers do this, as do many 3e special abilities.) Acid, cold, fire, lightning… it’s going to be hard to narrate all of those convincingly as just scratches and dings.

Second, I think 5e’s design is too concerned with pick up games and one-off games and small party games. Making this kind of healing a module is a fine idea; making it core is more problematic.

Third, I suppose I’ll have to see the mechanics, but how do healing skills help with this? Does a ranger who knows “healing herbs and poultices” give a bonus to his allies, for instance, or a wizard who has studied anatomy?

If hit dice represent mundane healing, will mundane factors (no bandages, filthy conditions, etc) reduce this capacity? Probably not for everyone, but it would be a good optional rule for gritty games where resource management counts.

I think you can do a lot of mechanical tricks with the “hit dice” concept, which is a bonus.

I’d like to keep “bloodied” in as a conditional modifier. It’s a good idea and one of the “Top 10″ innovations from 4e, IMO. It’s even migrated to our PF campaign. It has no mechanical effect there, but a player will call out “bloodied!” to let us know he’s wounded (well, his character is. Usually his character. Almost always.), or the DM will use it to let us know we’ve finally managed to really hurt the monster. (To a chorus of “What, you mean we JUST bloodied it?”)

I also wrote this, a little later:

I suppose I should ask this… if the system is designed so that you can expect to survive fights without an in-combat healer (cleric, warlord, druid, bard), then, what is the benefit to having them? They will have to be designed so that their healing abilities represent part of their “value”, but if that value is not needed due to how encounters are expected to be designed, then, they’re going to be underpowered in their secondary role. Further, if you argue that “Well, it’s a lot EASIER with a cleric”, that’s fine, but then how do you design an adventure which can “work” with both magical and non-magical healing? (By this I mean, “If you have magical healing, you won’t need to rest for a day after 2 fights, so we can set up the scenario to occur in a shorter span of time. If you don’t have magical healing, you’ll most likely need to camp after the first two encounters, which means the orc shaman has time to summon Cthulhu while you’re napping.”)

This latter one might need some expansion here (see! Real content!), to be more clear, and because I never say in a hundred words what I can say in a thousand. Or more. If “healing after the fight” and “no need for a cleric” (which, at this stage of the playtest, means “no need for a healer”, as only the four core classes are being developed, so please don’t get nitpicky and say “Oh, but not needing a cleric doesn’t mean you don’t need a healer at all”, because, right now, at this point, at the stage the game is currently at, the only healers are clerics) are core mechanical concepts, this implies that basic fight design is going to assume you can survive to heal after the fight without a cleric. The “standard, balanced” encounter will not require in-combat healing to survive.

Which means:

a)Those parts of a cleric’s design which are devoted to healing are not needed by the basic game design; those parts which aren’t are, by definition, secondary. That is, if we want to say a cleric is “Half healing, half melee”, then, if the healing isn’t actually needed to survive a fight, then you’ve got half a fighter when you could have a whole fighter, or a whole wizard, or whatever.

Or:

b)Healing without magic is time consuming and limited; your total daily fighting capacity is much less. This is strongly implied by the article, and I guess we’ll know for sure in three days. (Why they’re being so coy when the playtest is public and three days away, I don’t know. Just tell us the actual mechanics you’re using, dammit!) I do not object to this at all; it’s a very good way to distinguish between magical and non magical healing. But… this means that a party with a cleric might be able to complete a particular task or quest in one day while a party without one will not, which means any adventure designed without exact foreknowledge of what the party makeup will be risks being either too easy (you build it for a non-cleric party) or too hard (the party has to battle several times to get to the end goal, which is going to happen at a specific time; if they nap in between, they miss it.)

I should note a pretty good answer to ‘b’ is “Well, then the party better find a clever way to avoid some of those encounters” or “The DM should change the adventure!”, and that’s fine for a lot of cases. It’s problematic in any kind of structured play, where you don’t want DM subjectivity giving one group an easy out because he like their cunning plan, while another DM thinks their cunning plan is Baldric-quality and doesn’t let it work.

Further, it’s emblematic of a common thread I see running through a lot of Mike’s pronouncements, the idea that the game will run the same no matter what rules modules you’re using, and, frankly, given how smart Mike is, and what a good designer he is (and those two statements were not sarcasm, irony, or any such thing; I mean them absolutely and sincerely), I’m really finding it hard to understand how he can think this. He knows, he knows very, very, well, how much subtle changes to rules change how the game is played. A feat, power, skill, or spell can become overpowered, or useless, based on which modules might be used. Changing how often characters can recover resources changes how much they can do in an in-game day, which changes how the DM has to structure events. Even in a sandbox game with as much player freedom as possible, the amount of “stuff” a character can do before needing to turn in for the night greatly impacts how you design the sandbox, how far you can expect players to explore, how clever they need to be to exceed the expected limits. In a more structure adventure, it becomes even more important to have solid expectations of what you can do.

FantasyCraft has options and dials you can set for an adventure, or for a campaign, and these have a mechanical impact that ripples through the system. Dials that make things easier for players increase the resources the GM has to build encounters, and vice-versa. I’ve not seen a hint that 5e intends to do this, though it’s so early in the process I might be making false assumptions. Nonetheless, the message from Mike’s posts is “Everyone gets to play the D&D they want to play, all at the same time, and it all works!” is the design goal — and I frankly can’t see that being possible. A modular system is great, but then you need to have tools to adjust and tweak each encounter, NPC, etc, to be balanced with the modules you’re using — not at all impossible, but counter to the “Sit down, open the box, and just PLAY!, dammit!” design goal.

I’ll probably have a lot to say in three days…which means I’ll get around to saying it in thirty or forty.

Beginning: Comments On 5E

Race, Class, Theme, Background

Well, since a lot of my writing time (i.e, time when code is compiling, tests are running, etc) is being taken up with occasional rants on the 5e boards, it seems to me that I could kill two birds with one stone (I took Weapons Focus (Sling), Weapon Specialization (Sling), Improved Critical (Sling), Manyshot, Avian Hunter, Improved Avian Hunter, and have a +2 Birdbane Sling and Bracers of Archery…er…Slingery…Slinging…whatever) and copy and paste some of them here, thus adding to illusion that this site has “updates” and “content”, which, in turn, helps create the illusion there are also “readers”. I feel a lot like Jeremy in Yellow Submarine, creating my own world for my own consumption. Solipsists of the world, unite!

OK, Background on Backgrounds

First, you need to read this post. (http://community.wizards.com/dndnext/blog/2012/04/06/beyond_class_and_race )Really. Nothing below is going to make sense without you doing so. “Who’s Pete?” you’ll ask. “Who’s Laura?”

So, having read that, here’s my initial reply to, as copied when I wrote it, meaning, even more typos than usual. (Hm… if over 50% of my posts are prefaced with “more typos than usual”, and it sometimes seems as if they are, doesn’t that de facto make them contain “the usual number of typos”, and my “edited” posts have “fewer typos than usual”?)

So… basically, all you’re doing is providing a set of pre-chosen selections of skills/feats/powers from a larger set, and calling them “themes” and “backgrounds”? The reason this couldn’t be done in 3e, 3.5, and 4e was… ? (Hell, it WAS done, in all of them, it just didn’t get beyond first level in most cases.)

I am not seeing a whole lot of advantage here. Someone who picks a “theme” still had to read through all the feat descriptions to learn what they do, comparing one theme to another theme and so on. As characters level up, they’re going to discover they don’t like the way some part of their background/theme works and want to change it, so, really, you’re basically saying, “Here, pick this pre-defined list of stuff that goes to 20th level, except that, by third level, you’ll be ignoring it completely.”

The only reason “Pick race, pick class, boom, done” worked in the pre-3e days was that there were no other options; people who wanted detailed characters who changed as they grew played Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero, etc. If you have a game that has enough feats and options to satisfy the “Lauras” of the world, “Pete” is going to realize he’s getting the shaft. He won’t be happy with the boredom of not having any choices to make as he levels up, because the designer made them for him. On the other hand, if themes/backgrounds are the only way to get certain options (“You can’t have Thieves’ Cant unless you take the Thief theme, period.”), then people will be rightfully pissed, because that basically makes it impossible to mix-and-match, so you’re left waiting for WOTC to release the “Sort of a fighter but he can speak Thieves’ Cant” theme.

Try to remember that the 1980s didn’t happen in a vacuum, that everything occurs in a context. Just because people paid 400.00 for a machine that only played “Pong” in 1975, and it was a lot of fun THEN, doesn’t mean you can market that same machine today and say “Hey! It was fun in 1975, right? So it’s still going to be fun now!”

3e finally caught D&D up to the rest of the gaming world. 4e had some genuine innovations and actually advanced the state of the art in many ways. Both had strengths and weaknesses that are well documented. Build on their strengths and correct their weaknesses. Prior to 3e, though, D&D hobbled through the 1980s and 1990s with a design philosophy stuck in 1975. 5e needs to be a game for 2012, 2013, and beyond, not a nostalgia trip.

In Which We Explain Further

So. Here’s a longer explanation. Basically, I think what WOTC wants is for D&D to be a beer& pretzels pick up game. They envision this:

Bob: Hey, gang! We’ve got about three hours. Do we want to play Settlers of Cataan or D&D?

Gang: D&D!

Bob: Great! Everyone, pick a race card, a class card, a theme card, and a background card, and fill in your character’s name. All done? Great! Here’s the adventure, “The Cryptic Crypt Of The Crypt King”. The box set comes with 10 adventures, and there’s lots more for sale for only 5.99! I’ll be the DM!

Gang: Whee! Let’s play!

And, I ought to be clear: This isn’t a bad concept for a game. Indeed, it’s a good concept. So good, it’s been done by lots of successful games: Heroquest, for example. Talisman. Heroscape, to some extent. Dungeon. Descent. Loads I probably haven’t heard of.

It’s probably a great idea to use iconic D&D characters, monsters, settings, and terms, too. There’s tremendous value tied up in the D&D IP. Games of this type have a large market and pursuing that market is something any smart company should do, if they think they have a niche and it won’t be seen as a “me too” product hastily rushed to market (cough Spellfire cough).

But it’s not D&D the RPG, and 5e is supposed to be the “unite the tribes” edition of D&D.

So, What’s Wrong With Themes, Etc?

Absolutely nothing. I love them in 4e; they should have been part of the core. I love Pathfinders “archetypes”, which serve a similar role, changing aspects of how the character acts, removing some abilities and granting others. Backgrounds, which help better shape a character’s origin, and give them greater ties to the world and/or minor skills from their upbringing which either enhance their primary role or give them useful tricks you might not expect, are also good. On the surface, making these things core in 5e is undeniably a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that WOTC seems to see think that the main problem with D&D is that it takes too long to make a character, that there’s too many choices, and that if you could just “start playing”, it would be great. What’s wrong with that?

First, you don’t have an awful lot of choices at first level, even in modern editions, unless a DM stupidly hands someone every supplement ever made and says “Pick a class”. For a first timer, the core classes and races ought to be enough.

Second, if one of the goals of “themes” is to collect useful choices that work together well into a bundle, this has been done since 3e; there’s always been “starting packages”.

Third, and this is really the issue here, D&D isn’t about making a character to start the game. It’s about advancing a character. It’s about playing his journey from “zero to hero”. It’s about taking him in unexpected directions as the game unfolds, both in terms of personality and game mechanics. Each level up is a chance to learn some new skills, choose new powers or spells, pick a feat, swap out old abilities, and so on, reflecting what’s happened to the character in the past couple of games.

Saying “Here’s your race, here’s your class, here’s your theme, boom, done!” works if you want a pickup game and just want to jump in. However, it’s contrary to the absolute heart of D&D, and that is the character’s ongoing story. D&D’s revolutionary idea, the concept that created the entire genre of role playing games, wasn’t “one figure equals one man”, or the integration of magic and monsters into tabletop wargaming, it was the idea of a continuing character who exists from one game to the next, growing in power and ability, trailing a story behind him. (And, importantly, not following a story laid out in front of him!)

Rules concepts like background (social skills, job skills, training, initial position in the world, cultural traits, minor bonuses and penalties from one’s upbringing and schooling and childhood and family), and themes (specializations, unique abilities, variant talents, unusual paths, esoteric powers) are great. They add tremendously to the class-based system, and help avoid the problem of drawing all character options from a single resource pool. However, and this is crucial, they must be bolt-ons to a core class system that is itself extremely flexible and capable of expressing a wide variety of character concepts and ideas within a single class. The game design, as a whole, needs to be centered around the campaign, around the ongoing adventures of the characters and their growth and progression — not on isolated adventures designed to be begun and finished in a single evening, with no continuity from one to the next, and no character growth.

But That’s Not What They’re Saying!

At this point, someone’s getting ready to point out that WOTC isn’t saying “No more campaigns” and that they’re talking about long term play, with themes offering pre-selected choices at each level, yadda yadda. Ah, but here’s the thing. The only time “too many choices” ever matter is at the moment of character creation, and then, only for very new players. If a player is intrigued enough to stay beyond a game or two, he’ll learn the rules, and want to make his own choices. The utility value of a theme, as a means of simplifying the game, diminishes rapidly with level. (This is not the same as the utility value of a theme as something which offers “out of the box” abilities or unique specializations or skills.) So, there’s a problem here. The “theme” player, if he just lets the theme run its course, is less involved in his character, and in the game, than the player who actively selects their abilities each level. He is disenfranchised, cut off from most of the game’s options, and each mechanic that allows him to ignore a theme pick and choose a non-theme pick undercuts the concept of the theme itself. Why bother with  20 level theme, if no one’s going to pay too much attention to it past fifth level? Of course, there’s nothing that says a theme has to make every choice; a theme could only come into play every four levels, or whatever, but, again, this goes against the idea of “simplifying” choices.

Of course, we’re at a very early design stage in 5e. It’s hard to say what the final form of “themes” or “backgrounds” will be. WOTC is doing 5e right, in the sense that we (the customers) are being shown the design in progress, along with the reasoning for it, instead of being told “Our professional funologists have determined that you’re not having fun. Our new game increases your fun by 78.6%. Play our new game. Have fun, Citizens. Serve the Computer. The Computer is your friend, unless you’re a commie mutant traitor.”, which was basically the 4e marketing pitch. The main test balloon WOTC is floating now, across several different columns/blogs, is “We’re thinking D&D ought to be a casual pickup game, not a long-term campaign game.” It’s time to start tossing some +5 flaming keen javelins at that balloon.

Making Magic Magical

A common complaint I see on RPG boards is that “magic should be more magical”. The lack of “magicalness” is often cited as a reason to dislike some new version of a game, or otherwise waved around as a generic failure that explains why nothing is fun anymore and everything sucks and it’s just not like it was in the old days.

Virtually identical tones, if different in actual details, can be found on every MMORPG board, and it all basically boils down to “You can’t lose your virginity twice”, a metaphor which is, admittedly, a bit problematical when dealing with some MMO players. But I digress. (Yeah, I’ve made that joke before. Hey, you go with what works, you know?)

Anyway, to focus on the topic on hand… no system of rules will make magic magical. The reason why is in that very sentence. It’s a system of rules. No matter how the game is dressed up in folderol like “arranging motes of quintessence in order to transform will into power”, it boils down to “Roll 4d10 and add your Majik1 Enlightenment to blast the zombie into dust.”

A common response to this is, “Well, sure, there are rules, but the game and the world can make magic mysterious, and magical!” Partially true… but not nearly so much as some people think or want, and here’s why. When discussing D&D, or dungeon crawly/medieval fantasy in general,  magic is usually quite common in actual play, even if the rules say it isn’t. Face it, if you’ve got a book of spells, and a book of items, and a book of monsters, you want to use most of them. You don’t want your heroes spending all their time fighting normal humans with normal weapons… unless your name is “George R. R. Martin”, who can literally describe characters eating breakfast and make it compelling reading.

Rules For Breakfast Not Included

(Yes, I know what “literally” means. I do not mean ‘figuratively’ or ‘as an exaggerated example’. I mean, when George R. R. Martin writes about what his characters eat, just the normal mundane foods they consume, he does it in a way that is interesting enough that it serves to draw you into the world, not make you yawn and wonder when he’s going to get on with the plot. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say few, if any, of the people reading this are that skilled at DMing.) You want your characters fighting vampiric half-dragon wolves with flaming vorpal swords! (You can read this as “the characters are using the swords” or “the wolves are using the swords” — either works.) So the world is going to be steeped in magic and monsters, and that’s that.

This is a “best case” scenario, where only the PCs, and their key antagonists, have access to magic, akin to older high fantasy like Lord Of The Rings.

Rules For Second Breakfast Not Included

The NPCs may oooh and ahhh and swoon over the magic, but there’s still no getting around the fact that the players know exactly how many plusses Gorthandiril, The Lost Sword Of The True Kings Of The Far Lands, has, and how much better it is than a mundane sword, and that they’ll toss it down a well if a sword with more plusses shows up. Even in this case, if the campaign is long, the amount of magic in it will invariably creep up, if only to keep the enemies and the players on an equal footing. Further, it’s quite impossible to pull many of the tricks that authors pull when you’re dealing with players. They’ll loot every item they can find, and “mumble mumble doesn’t work for you mumble mumble” grows thin. Even more, no matter what wondrous, enthralling, truly mystical marvel you create, as an item or as a feature of the world, some player is going to find a way to exploit the living crap out of it by treating it as a fact of the world and then reasoning forward from that fact… and that leads us to the more common scenario.

That scenario is, “the world is overloaded with magic”. This is the default scenario for any D&D world, whether you want to admit it or not; you can’t go into any random dungeon and come out with a pile of wands, scrolls, potions, and so on, without realizing “someone made all this stuff, and it was sufficiently replaceable that it was left to molder in some goblin-infested pit until a bunch of sociopathic murderers decided to commit genocide and then loot the corpses”.  If there exist NPCs capable of massacring goblins by sneezing on them (and there usually are), and none of them considered finding, say, a +1 sword in a goblin lair to be sufficient inducement to take an hour or two to clean out said lair, this instantly tells you that a +1 sword is considered to be a pretty darn common thing, even if the fluff text in the rules goes on and on about how rare magic is. If the fluff text says “Magic is rare and precious!”, and then the “sample adventure” has a goblin lair with magic items in it, a bare hop, skip, and jump from a town with NPCs of sufficiently high level that the PCs can’t just skip the goblins and, instead, loot the town… the fluff text is lying.

“Well, what if no one knew there was a magic sword there?”

Do they let the PCs keep the magic sword? Yes? Then the magic sword is virtually worthless.

Let’s put it this way. If a modern day soldier, returning from a battle, has grabbed an enemy utility knife, or even pistol, as a souvenir, he might be breaking some regulation or two, but in reality, no one will care. If he comes back with, oh, an atomic bomb, he will not be allowed to keep it “as a souvenir”. Period. Given how even high-level NPCs in most D&D type worlds react to PCs with magic items (that is, they don’t), barring artifacts and similar world-wreckers, there’s no way to get around it — magic items are common.

Likewise, so are spellcasters. Again, no matter how much the fluff text insists magic is rare and amazing and people stare with wonder at it, if a typical part of a wizard, a cleric, and this year’s variant of gish (fighter/magic-user) can walk through town and go about their business easily enough… magic isn’t rare. (Consider how much fuss was caused in Israel, about 2000 years ago, when one person tossed off a few trivial spells like Cure Blindness, Walk On Water, and Create Food and Drink. Even the highest level spell cast was Raise Dead, which is only fifth level.)

“So? Just because magic is common doesn’t mean it can’t be…. magical, whatever that means!”, says my peanut gallery of straw men, a truly strange mental image.

Except that it does. If it’s common… people know how it works and what it does. Oh, most people might not know everything and there will be a lot of false information. The “why” and “how” might be very mysterious… but so what? I don’t need to know exactly how gunpowder combusts to know, roughly, what a gun can do, how fast it can fire, how many shots it holds. I may not be able to perform the equations that explain how rifling works, but I know what it does and the effect it has on a bullet. A wand of fireballs is no more mysterious, to a typical D&D inhabitant, than a fully-automatic rifle. He may never own one. He may never see one personally, at least, he probably hopes not. He may not be able to describe how it works, or determine, at a glance, how many charges it has left… but he’s heard of them, he knows enough about them that while he may be terrified of seeing one in action, he’s not astounded by it. The reality of its existence is part of his world. We all live surrounded by machines whose exact workings we can barely fathom, and we know of the existence of all sorts of machines we have never personally seen or interacted with.

Attempts to hammer a “sensawunda” into the rules are usually futile. You can make magic much more random and less reliable, but this still doesn’t make magic “magical” — it just makes it more of a case for detailed cost-benefit analysis.

So what’s the solution?

Well, first, players need to realize that what they’re asking for is to have their minds reset to the time when they first discovered RPGs, when they didn’t know how the rules worked or what spells were available or anything, and so of course magic was “magical”. While you could guess what a sword could do fairly easily, you had no idea what a wizard could do, so you actually experienced that sense of wonder, because it was new to you, the player, and that cannot be recaptured by any rules.

Second, the DM and the players have to take up some of the heavy lifting themselves.

Effects need to be described, not just in terms of their game effects, but in their sight, sound, smell, and the way they impact the world. When a character “detects magic”, what are they doing? Hearing odd noises? Seeing colors? Having images flicker into their brain, like forgotten dreams? This responsibility falls on both sides of the screen. If a DM tells you, “You’re detecting strong conjuration magic”, you may tell the rest of the party this, in character, as “There are vibrations here of the sort one usually sees with spells of conjuration… fairly potent ones, too… let me wait a moment more, and see if I can perceive the sub-harmonies that could indicate the type”. Now, of course, this kind of flavor text might strike other people as utterly wrong, exactly the kind of clinical pseudo-scientific “magic” they want to avoid… and that’s fine. The exact way in which the mechanics of the rules are perceived by the people in the game world is something that tends to arise from consensus between the players and the DM.

The game mechanics of 3.x/PF, and to a lesser extent 4e, virtually mandate a golf bag of magic items and a constant swapping of weaker items for better ones. (I’ve found that, in 4e, once someone likes a sword/armor/shield, it’s often best to simply increment the bonus instead of giving them a “new” item. If a flaming sword is iconic to their character, then, instead of replacing the +1 flaming sword with a +2 frost sword, or a different +2 flaming sword, just say, “After the battle, you realize that the ambient magic has been partially drawn into your blade, increasing the potency of the enchantments upon it.” Most players, in my experience, are happy to keep the sword that has become identified with their character, so long as they remain in the right place on the power curve.)

Even if you do have many potions/wands/scrolls, though, it’s possible and desirable to describe them uniquely. A wand of fireballs may be made of charred wood and always smell slightly sulfurous, for example. Potions have varying tastes and textures. Even more, each item may have odd side effects or unusual traits, reflecting the idea that magic is as much art as science. Given two wands of magic missile, for instance, one might emit bolts that fly towards their target with a keening whine, while another bucks and quivers as it discharges.

In conclusion… if you think that the reason things aren’t “magical” enough is that the rules are too well-defined, and that going back to a “simpler” rules set will “bring back the magic”… you’re probably wrong, and you’re going to spend a lot of time being very disappointed. If you want to recapture the feeling of freshness and wonder, bring in some new players — in any edition of the rules — and enjoy seeing the game through their eyes. If you want to make the world more evocative and involving — don’t expect the game to provide you with all the description and imagery that makes it so; do it yourself. As a player, describe what happens when you cast a spell, or the look and feel of your magic items, and ask your fellow players to do the same. As a DM, think about every +1 sword and potion of cure light wounds you hand out, and give them something interesting, even if it’s just a decoration on the hilt or the fact that when you drink the potion, you hear a feminine voice singing “Soft Kitty”.

If You Didn’t Get That Last Joke, Order This

 

1: The more you misspell “magic”, the more magical… I mean, majyckyl… it is.