Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

Tools for Dreaming: Conscious Design

This chapter of Tools for Dreaming is an attempt at pushing a philosophy I call “conscious design,” in contrast to what I see as the problem of unthinking repetition of RPG design cliches. This is so, so not me lording over other people. There are so many design cliches that I struggle with all the time. The influence of Apocalypse World has helped me get better at realizing my RPG ideas, but I’m well aware that that comes with a set of deign cliches too.

Conscious Design

“Engage in conscious design.” That’s my most important bit of design advice, not only for RPGs, but for anything. I put it on a T-shirt even.[1]

conscious design

When you design a game, you can do just about anything, but you need to do it consciously, and be aware of the effects things have on play. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s something that RPGs need to get better at. There are patterns that RPG design falls into, and while there’s merit in using methods you and your audience are familiar with, the unthinking repetition of well-worn conventions may have stunted the medium’s growth. That’s to be expected when such a large portion of this hobby is dedicated to relatively minor variations of D&D, but unless Wizards of the Coast or Paizo are seriously looking at your resume, you shouldn’t be beholden to Gary Gygax’s highly specific vision.

Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Conscious Design


The Dungeon Zone

For whatever reason my “weird little games” have gotten bigger and started taking longer to finish, moving from 10 pages to more like 60+ pages. On the plus side, I’ve been pretty happy with how they’ve been turning out. One of the big ones at the moment is The Dungeon Zone.

DnD Zone Cover
Planning to replace the art in the middle with something else, but still, I had fun making a pastiche of the OD&D box cover. I’m inordinately amused about “1-Volume Set.”

I have a weird relationship with D&D. Of course, the RPG scene in general has a weird relationship with D&D, but in particular I started playing RPGs with Palladium’s Robotech RPG, then didn’t really play any D&D until 3rd Edition came out (though I owned and read a lot of AD&D books and made a handful of faltering attempts at playing them), and then across 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions I played it for about a decade of regular play in all, before basically deciding that I’d played A Sufficient Amount of D&D. I have a lot of criticism of the game (I’m even working on a book that’s an extended critique of D&D, though it’d be a lot of work to actually bring it to fruition), though also a good amount of praise to go along with it. It can be a rollicking good time, but it’s a pretty specific game that excels at certain kinds of play and is mediocre to actively harmful for others. You can use it for stuff other than its core dungeon fantasy competence, in much the same way that if you’re determined enough you can put in nails with a screwdriver. The best D&D fiction and actual play celebrates how it’s a kitchen sink dungeon fantasy game about a band of weirdos flailing around and getting into trouble, and doesn’t try to ape Tolkien or other authors far removed from the dungeon fantasy genre.

One that particularly inspired me was The Adventure Zone‘s “Balance” campaign. The McElroy Brothers are best known for their My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast, but they do a kind of ridiculous number of other podcasts and other online stuff. TAZ is the result of them (and their dad) sitting down to play RPGs, and the Balance campaign (loosely) uses D&D 5th Edition (with a custom PbtA hack for one arc), and to me it’s pretty much everything that D&D play should aspire to. There’s also the fact that they apparently record for several hours and edit it down to a reasonable podcast length, cutting out the inevitable boring bits. Continue reading The Dungeon Zone

D&D 5E First Impressions

On July 3rd the free PDF of the D&D Basic Rules went up on the WotC site, and the Starter Set went on sale at local game stores (with a wider release to come on the 15th). I’ve had a rather unusual relationship with the game, as it’s something I only ever really engaged as an adult hobbyist. For me D&D doesn’t have any particular nostalgia, and it was always one of many, many possible games to play. That some people act as though it were the only RPG in the world is just plain baffling to me, and I probably would not have stuck with this hobby for 20+ years if there were only the one game to play. That’s the kind of attitude I come to this with, so this first impressions thing isn’t going to be hugely positive.


With the Starter Set and Basic Rules on hand, 5E isn’t all that bad, but the parts I actually find interesting are hiding in odd corners, more useful to me as potential stuff to try in other games. Granted these versions of the game deliberately have simple baseline versions of the classes (well, as simple as they’re willing to let the wizard and cleric get, which isn’t very simple at all), but they’re the four most cliche D&D classes, and the fighter is the staggeringly boring “I hit it with my sword” guy. If I play the game before the PHB comes out, there won’t actually be a single class I particularly want to play, and about the best compromise will be shoehorning my 4E warlord character into a cleric.
Continue reading D&D 5E First Impressions

4E: Extended Challenges

I’ve been saying for a while now that the skill challenges in D&D4e are a nifty idea that was poorly executed. The “extended challenges” rules are my attempt to fix that, essentially by adapting the Focus System rules from Arianrhod to the rules and general attitude of 4e. The result is a 3-page rules module that in theory should be easy to drop into a game with zero changes to how characters or anything else are handled.

I haven’t had a chance to try it out at all–our last attempt at getting back into 4e fizzled–and there are a few things I didn’t get around to fully fleshing out, but I figured I might as well fling it at the interwebs to see what people make of it.

4e Extended Challenges Rules PDF


I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m really looking forward to the games that draw on D&D4e for inspiration but improve on its ideas in various ways. (And I really need to get around to playing Last Stand some time soon.) One thing that I find especially fascinating is the use of roles (and the myriad things that flow from them). 4e’s roles show distinct inspiration from video games, but they’re also carefully tailored to the tabletop experience. They reinforce the notion of D&D as a team effort incredibly well, though they have certain drawbacks, like making non-standard party configurations potentially more difficult. (Early on we tried playing 4e without a Leader character. It was rough.)

In the typical MMO the three main roles are tank, DPS, and healer. Tanks are durable and can draw aggro (i.e., get the enemy AI to concentrate on them), DPS (damage per second) characters dish out lots of damage to take enemies down, and healers, you know, heal, and in particular keep the tank standing so the rest of the group can do their thing. “Crowd control” exists as a fourth role, though usually rolled into DPS or healing. Most of what I know about the finer points of MMORPG play I know from osmosis by having several friends who like to blather about it, but one thing people are really clear about is that relatively few players enjoy playing tanks, and good tank players are kind of hard to come by.

D&D4e’s four roles of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller roughly correspond to tank, DPS, healer, and crowd control, but there are some very important key changes to make them function in a tabletop RPG. RPGs don’t generally have aggro mechanics, so rather than directly inducing enemies to attack them, defenders punish enemies for attacking anyone else. A monster that the fighter has marked can either attack the fighter, or take a -2 penalty to its attack on someone else and risk taking an opportunity attack. Defenders are still reactive (enough so that I didn’t enjoy playing them personally), but they’re definitely not as unpopular to play as tanks are in MMOs. Leaders meanwhile have a much stronger emphasis on buffing allies (or debuffing enemies in certain cases, notably the bard) with healing as an important but secondary function, thus avoiding the problem of “cleric as healbot.” Strikers meanwhile are pretty straightforward, whereas controllers were the one role that took some time for WotC to really figure out how to implement (much to the chagrin of many a wizard player), but could be a very useful support role once they hit stride with the design.

To a degree 4e’s roles are an extension of things that already existed in D&D. The meatshield fighter is an old cliche, and the cleric was pretty much the quintessential leader class well before 4e came along. There’s a degree of rigidity to the roles though, which makes them easier to use but harder to customize. For some people it went against expectations for particular, though it is a little silly to complain that to make a swashbuckler means writing “rogue” instead of “fighter” on your character sheet. On the other hand Sacred BBQ took the step of actually decoupling roles from classes, so that what in 4e would be Fighter/Warlord/Slayer as separate classes could become Defender-Fighter/Leader-Fighter/Striker-Fighter. (Plus it adds a “Blaster” role.)

This has been on my mind in part because I’ve been working more on Magical Burst, the new version of which adds three “Specializations” of Witch, Knight, and Priestess that emphasize Attack, Defense, and Support (and would roughly correspond to Striker, Defender, and Leader). These are deliberately “softer” roles, and the game lets you build a character that gets into the stuff other roles do (and more advanced characters have the option to outright take on a second role). Also, while a group with all three specializations could potentially synergize better, a group without the complete set ought to still be effective. On the other hand they’re still derivatives of the 4e formula, and what I’m most curious about is an implementation of roles that is substantially different from that.

MOBA games (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena; games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends) are the other major video game genre that has a concept of roles, though they’re also a genre I find totally inaccessible.[1] Consequently I’m not going to try to dissect and explain MOBA roles, since I’m pretty sure I’ll inevitably get stuff wrong, plus they’re fuzzy and vary between games anyway. I will note that the roles in MOBA games seem to be very strongly shaped by the way the game functions, in particular being so heavily team-based that solo play isn’t a thing that even makes sense, and having characters level up over the course of a match as a major gameplay element. Thus one of the major roles in MOBA games is the “Carry,” which starts weak but eventually gains a lot of power, so that it needs other players to “carry” it to that point. The arenas, which have a neutral area with “creeps” (NPC monsters) not allied to either team, allow for a “Jungler” role that earns XP by killing those creatures, and represents a potential threat to enemies that have to venture through the jungle.

The big takeaway here is that there are lots of possible ways to apportion roles. The trick is to come up with a set of specialties that fit together into an overall approach to the activities that the game involves. MOBAs have roles that are pretty different from MMOs I think because they have so many key gameplay elements that are so different. Having a character with an uneven power progression would pretty much be a screwup in an MMO, but since the basic unit of MOBA play is one match, it’s an avenue for differentiating the heroes. Roles for tabletop RPGs are a largely unexplored technique, and there are a lot of areas where it could go in new and interesting places. To me the big thing there is the possibility of roles that effectively address non-combat stuff. D&D4e has a lot more support for non-combat stuff than an MMO, but skills are one of the most haphazard parts of the game, and other non-combat abilities are all over the place. Fighters are arbitrarily screwed over for skills,[2] while bards could be utter monsters in terms of using skills. To some extent there’s already a notion of having characters that specialize in being the Face, the Nature Guy, the Techie, etc. (The Risus Companion has pretty good writeups of that kind of thing.) The difference there is that that kind of specialization lends itself more to particular characters being the one guy in the group who can handle a particular obstacle, whereas the advantage of combat roles is that everyone can more or less always contribute to the group’s success without being relegated to the sidelines. How to go about crafting roles is still above my head, but it’s something I’m really interested in exploring in the future.

[1]I’m not good at tactics, and I’m not good at keeping track of lots of things at once, least of all in small amounts of time. MOBAs are derived from RTS games, which are already pretty much the perfect storm of a Game Not For Ewen in basically every way, and add a need for extremely tight teamwork.
[2]Even Rob Heinsoo, the guy who is responsible for keeping wizards in D&D4e from being just plain better “because magic,” initially had fighters and paladins have crap for skill (background) ranks in 13th Age.

D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

WOC2173672_500Strap in, it’s another meandering post about D&D!

When people talk about what influenced 4E, the first thing most people bring up is MMORPGs, especially World of Warcraft. It got turned into a catch phrase by 4E’s haters, and was routinely used without supplying any context that would give you a clue as to why it was a bad thing (or even a thing that mattered one way or the other). That it draws some ideas from MMOs is undeniable, though it’s also pretty clear that they carefully adapted those ideas to the medium at hand, which is why (for example) 4E’s Defenders are very different from a typical MMO Tank role. (They have to be in a game that doesn’t have any kind of aggro mechanic.) Although hardly anyone noticed, another thing that the designers have explicitly said they looked at was European board games, which is where for example a lot of the razor-sharp turn-handling mechanics came from. Mike Mearls and some of the other designers are also sports fans, and a lot of elements of 4E, especially with martial characters, make vastly more sense when you explain them in terms of basketball. Some people will rail about fighter marks being “mind control,” but sports fans seem to instantly grasp what defender marks represent if you explain it in terms of how defense works in basketball. A few times people have also tried to bring GNS theory into the list of influences, good or bad, and while Mearls and company were definitely aware of Forge theory and such, the rigor and focus of the design had so many other sources that I think it could have easily come about if the same team had never once heard of the Forge.

The one huge, glaring thing that routinely gets left out of discussions of 4E’s influences is D&D 3.5. Late in 3.5’s life people were exploring the limits of the system in ways they hadn’t quite done before. This was when terms like CoDzilla and Pun-Pun became widely known, and the D&D team, being the foremost group of people who were working on D&D as their actual profession full time, had to be listening to what the fanbase was saying. Not listening was one of 90s TSR’s biggest mistakes after all, and WotC launched their D&D venture with the aim of paying attention to what their fans wanted. 4E’s downright obsessive focus on game balance is clearly a reaction to the massive imbalances that character optimizers were able to unearth in 3.5. Charop still exists in 4E, but it’s nowhere close to the same level, and more importantly outside of extreme charop the difference in performance between a suboptimal and optimal character isn’t so massive as to totally obviate the suboptimal character. As someone with limited experience with 3.x and very extensive experience with 4E, whenever I looked through 3.5 books I was always struck by just how much wound up being familiar. The differences are considerable and important, but 4E is nonetheless a game that could only have come from people totally submerged in D&D 3.5 and the fandom around it. 4E is the game for which the Tome of Battle and Star Wars Saga Edition were intermediate steps, and which compared to any non-D&D game is pretty obviously an offshoot of the lineage that 3rd Edition started. To me it’s a reminder of the level of myopia that focusing too much on D&D alone can cause us.
Continue reading D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

D&D4e: The Blaster Wizard

“So what do you do?”
“I blast things with magic.”
“Sometimes I blast them even harder.”
“Once in a while I blast them twice.”
“…You’re hired.

This started out as kind of a joke, but I took it all the way to fruition (or a first draft at least) for the fun of it. The D&D Next playtest spurred discussion about the merits of the super-simple fighter whose mechanical options seem to come down to “It hit it with my sword” fighting alongside a wizard with dozens of spells. More than once people have half-jokingly suggested a wizard who just zaps things, and I finally decided to make a 4E Essentials wizard subclass that is basically a magical version of the Slayer fighter. Then, after I’d gotten a good chunk of it done, I found out that the Elementalist sorcerer in Heroes of the Elemental Chaos was a lot like that.[1] I decided to finish it anyway, but to go even simpler and drop the stances I’d been planning to put in. I also realized just how inefficient the original Essentials class format is, so in terms of format this wound up being a hybrid of 3.5 and 4e. The end result is all of 2 pages, though that’s partly because I cheated a little and just gave the class wizard utility powers. It’s kind of a dumb joke, so although I made a reasonable effort to color inside the lines, I won’t promise it’ll work as-is.

Blaster Wizard (PDF)

While looking for a Touhou picture to go with this post[2] I also realized that at some point I’d like to play a magic user who specializes in assaulting foes with energy in dazzling colors. (Marisa would’ve been better to illustrate that than Reimu, but I don’t have all day to dig through Safebooru.) In 4e terms that would probably be some kind of sorcerer, maybe a chaos sorcerer, though I don’t know that I’ll have an opportunity to play 4e proper again any time soon.

[1]To my irritation this is easy to miss, as there’s just the one sentence about it, which appears after a paragraph about how the elementalist uses the standard PHB style class progression table and can take other sorcerer powers from PHB2 and Arcane Power. (But apart from that HotEC is one of the best 4e books yet, as is Heroes of the Feywild.)

[2]It being a series of shmups, basically every character in Touhou is a blasty type magic user of some kind or other.