Monday, 24 November 2014

Meaningless Encounters

Imagine, if you would, an encounter occurring which has no relevance to the scenario in which it occurs. It adds no verisimilitude, adds no flavour to the game milieu, and has no impact or potential for impact on future events. Moreover, the encounter is neither fun nor challenging in and of itself. It is a complete waste of time.

Game systems can encourage elements of this kind of encounter. For instance, in games where resources are intended to “reset” after each encounter, it is easy enough to remove the potential for impact on future events. 

A hypothetical game system that takes two hours to resolve a chance glimpse of a deer in the woods would make what is otherwise five seconds of description a chore that removes all fun. If a system “balanced” encounters so that the PCs were expected to win, and turned encounters into formula combats that took hours to resolve, a chance encounter with an ogre (for example) could easily be removed of its potential fun and challenge.

An adventure writer can also encourage elements of this type of encounter. “No matter what the PCs do, X will occur….” and “If the PCs kill X, assume that an identical X takes its place….” certainly reduce the potential for impact, if the GM actually follows those suggestions.

Yet, few and far between are those encounters which are completely meaningless, unless the system or the GM makes a clear distinction between “relevant” and “irrelevant” encounters. If this is the case, yes, you can make any encounter irrelevant. Doing so does not improve game play IMHO and IME. Forcing the players to determine the relevance of encounters to their own goals – or allowing them to create that relevance themselves! – is, to me, an important aspect of game play.

Crappy encounters do exist. If we take the elements of verisimilitude, flavour, potential for impact, challenge, and intrinsic fun, we can see that the more of these elements an encounter has, the better an encounter it will be. Consequently, the fewer it has, the crappier it will be.

IMHO and IME, adhering to an encounter template or a “plot” to which all encounters must conform is the most common way to create crappy encounters. YMMY, and if it does, party on! Never throw away something that works for you because some jackhole on the internet has a different idea, or different experiences. “Even if that jackhole is you?” Friend, especially if that jackhole is me. What works for me might not work for you. And vice versa.

Here’s the second biggest source of crappy encounters (IMHO & IME): Lack of planning. In order to have meaning, an encounter must both have impact on the setting and be able to allow the players to have impact. That means that there has to be some structure to hang the encounter on, and that there has to be enough leeway in that structure that the PCs can change it through their actions.

So long as those conditions exist, no encounter is truly meaningless. And your chance of having a crappy encounter go down considerably.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Tao of Failing My Will Save

How odd that there are people still who seem to believe that I am preaching the 'one true way.'  Feel free to agree with me and expand on what I've written. Most every comment like this highlights the best parts of my post, adds things I never thought of, deliberates over the nuance of a particular ideal and straightens out my thinking.

Perhaps it is the title of the blog - the apparent insistence that I know the path the reader must tread, that I am demanding that the reader tread it and that if the reader refuses, the reader is an idiot or a fool.

Rumson, however, does not confirm the thesis.  He proposes an alternative thesis ... but he doesn't ask if Holbrook agrees.  He makes it clear: "This is so.  There is no room for argument."  That's because Rumson isn't proposing a thesis ... which is, after all, the entire point of Logan's play.  Rumson knows.  That's why, when Holbrook answers that he doesn't agree, Rumson doesn't care.  He gets to the root of it.  Holbrook doesn't agree because Holbrook doesn't understand.

[T]here IS a path. One that we are walking upon together, arguing, challenging one another, pointing out details along the route. 

Don't piggy-back on my blog and offer an alternative method for 'how you do it.' I am writing here about how I do it. Either address my method, or go write your idea on your blog.

I don't care that the reader agrees.  The response, "I agree with some of what Alexis writes, but not all of it," is pure Holbrook.  I am not Holbrook.  I am Rumson.  Rumson knows.

I don't care that the reader agrees. Feel free to agree with me and expand on what I've written. 

If you want to disagree with me, fine. Do so. I better see a source or a credibly prescient example from your personal experience, and that example better be specific, detailed and ungeneralized. It better be in the first three sentences, too.

[T]here IS a path. One that we are walking upon together, arguing, challenging one another, pointing out details along the route. It better be in the first three sentences.

I am Rumson.  Rumson knows.

How odd that there are people still who seem to believe that I am preaching the 'one true way.'  

Sources:;; - this last is the comments form for Alexis' [Rumson's] blog, which demands that you feel free to agree with him, or, if not, present a cogent, detailed, and well-referenced argument in three sentences. 

Rumson is right in Logan's play because the author deems that this is the case, and unless you assume that you have a special relationship with the "author" of reality, one should not assume that they are right simply on the basis of their pronouncements. Para 3, above, is almost the definition of "one true way", and the insistence of Alexis that he is Rumson (Rumson knows) should make things clear. There is a reason people believe Alexis is preaching "one true way". But it is not clear to Alexis.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Revisiting Old Predictions

We often make predictions, but how often do we go back to see how accurate they were? Alexis did me a solid this morning by reminding me of this blog post that I responded to way back in 2012. I am pretty sure that wasn’t Alexis’ intention, but let’s treat it as if it were.

My base prediction was:

It wasn’t the fault of fans that a toxic atmosphere was created, nor is it the fault of fans that 4e wasn’t well-received. Nor will the success or failure of D&D Next be due to anything other than the success or failure of WotC to put out a good product, market that product well, and undo to whatever extent they are able the ill-will their handling of the 4e release created.

And they have definitely taken some steps in the right direction, although I think that the NDAs for the beta playtest are a really bad idea (not required by most recent rpgs, including Pathfinder and Dungeon Crawl Classics, despite Mike Mearls’ claim to the contrary), and I don’t think 5e will fly without the OGL.

The systems that are doing well right now have the right combination of “good system + goodwill”, and I don’t think Hasbro is going to allow WotC the leeway needed to recreate the goodwill that was seen with the advent of 3e.

The rest of the discussion is actually, I think, worth reading. You will notice quite a bit of “IMHO” and “I think”, and this is largely because, as is obvious, no one can really be so sure what the future holds!

(1) The success or failure of D&D Next (now 5e) is the result of a combination of the product and of the goodwill WotC can generate.

If comments from Mike Mearls are anything to go by, 5e is a real success, and Hasbro is happy that target numbers have been reached. I doubt that anyone is going to claim that this is the result of “toxic fans” or a lack of good will towards WotC. In fact, between the time that I wrote my responses in the blog post and the release of 5e, WotC went out of its way to address the ill will generated with the 4e release strategy.

It is of interest to me that Mike Mearls continues to hedge in relation to the OGL, or what licensing 5e will eventually have. This suggests rather strongly that, despite 5e materials being created right now under the OGL, the system will have a different licensing arrangement. A return to the OGL would have been announced early, because it would generate interest and goodwill.  On the other hand, by deferring the question, WotC can hope to build up enough interest and goodwill related to the system itself that, whatever the eventual licensing, people will be too invested to quit.

And that was, AFAICT, the initial scheme:  Play it for a year, and then we’ll tell you the details about the licensing. Maybe.

(2) The NDA was a bone-headed move.

The NDA did was prevent prolific and prominent bloggers from discussing D&D Next explicitly. It was violated almost immediately, and anyone who wanted them could easily obtain the playtest materials.

But, in this case, perhaps that was the point. By making these materials appear hard to obtain (and that clandestinely), WotC may well have raised the interest in 5e in a way that an open playtest would not have.

(3) Hasbro will not allow the leeway needed to give 5e the goodwill seen with 3e’s release.

The jury’s still out on this. Certainly, that 5e is a better system than 3e or 4e has been touted regularly on various blogs and forums. Equally certainly, renewing access to early editions in PDF (and sometimes print) formats has generated a lot of goodwill. There is certainly a sense that WotC is listening.

As an obvious corollary, if 5e is wildly successful, that will be because of Wizards, not because of the fans. They will have produced and marketed a good product, and overcome the ill-will generated around the release of 4e. It will be an achievement.

Yes, I said that. So far, WotC does seem to have managed that achievement. In part, I suspect, by postponing the licensing announcements until player investment is heavy.

For 5e to be “D&D Next” it needs to feel like coming home…like a game that DM’s can take ownership of. It needs to not feel like a game you play only at the whims of WotC’s legal department.

I still hold this to be true. Whether or not DMs will feel that ownership once they discover the licensing terms is a whole ‘nother matter.

Well, I already know my opinions. Please “hijack” this blog by telling me what you think. I promise not to perma-ban anyone for not simply regurgitating my own thoughts!*

*And, yes, Alexis, that is me tweaking your nose. And no, I did not discover your blog post by searching from "searching for a name" on Google to stir up some controversy in order to maintain readership. Your blog is still on my reading list because, despite the many posts about how everyone else sucks, you do occasionally have very interesting things to say.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Creator and Final Arbiter

"It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain that the game is mastered by you and not by your are the creator and final arbiter." 

- Gary Gygax, Afterword from the 1st edition DMG

These words hold true for (nearly?) all role-playing games, not just Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Rest well, Gary. You are missed.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

Have you seen Doctor Who`s season finale, Death in Heaven?

If not, skip this post. If so, highlight to read:

Don`t be so sure that Osgood is dead. Jump back to The Day of the Doctor, and you will note that Osgood frequently used an inhaler, and the lack of inhaler indicated her Zygon duplicate. Following the ratification of a treaty between humans and Zygons, why wouldn`t Osgood-Zygon be allowed to maintain a liaison post with U.N.I.T.?

No inhaler. Not Osgood.

Expect the character to return.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

All In

This could well be the adventuring party...
My youngest child, at 8 years old, is now dipping her feet into the icy waters of role-playing games. I have, therefore, had the delightful task of re-writing the rules to match her interests and willingness to undertake risk. In this game, character death is off the table. She’s just not ready for it yet, although in a few years I hope to be able to introduce her to “harder” games.

One of the fun things about writing material that will never be used outside your own home – no restrictions on what you can use! So hobbits are hobbits, instead of halflings. And – why not? – there are fraggles exploring “Outer Space” in this game ala Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock. And I get to use a bunch of creatures from Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk books. Fun stuff. Did I mention that she also watches Land of the Lost, and that Sleestaks will be encountered?

It’s nice working for publication, but it is also very cool working for your own enjoyment. In my home Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, I can easily use materials from MERP, Gamma World, and AD&D, but if I convert these materials, I cannot publish the results. I have also been statting out creatures, characters, items, patrons, and spells from Appendix N fiction (and have shared some of this work here), but the Appendix N Cyclopedia I am working on will, ultimately, be for my reference alone. Likewise the Doctor Who rpg I am working on – stealing the best bits from FASA, Time Lord, and Cubicle 7, but ultimately for in-house use only.

I do this stuff because I love it. It’s damn nice to be able to share with all of my children.

Good gaming!

Players' Map for the starting area of my youngest's adventures....

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Balanced Encounters

When people talk about “balanced encounters”, they may mean one of several things – anything from creating encounters that are generally appropriate for a dungeon level (as with early D&D) to ensuring that the PCs can win every fight with an “appropriate” risk and expenditure of resources (as with the base assumptions of 3e and 4e).

What underlies this, of course, is a simple question: If the PCs fail, who is responsible?

Look back through forums focused on 3e, and you will discover all sorts of complaints about the CR system.  I have not been an aficionado of 4e, but I imagine that similar observations related to that system’s encounter budgets also occurred. The books, essentially, offer a way for encounters to be “balanced”; if the PCs fail it is either because the books failed, or the DM didn’t follow the guidelines.

The first time I encountered this was in 2e, where the DM was encouraged to fudge in order to save the PCs. In 1e, there was certainly language that suggested that the DM was allowed to do so; in 2e the suggestion was that the DM should do so. 1e’s “balance” was focused around campaign-length play and mechanisms that allowed the players to estimate their risk. A prime example of this is that, in general, the deeper one delves, the greater the treasures and the risks. This, of course, was not absolute – PCs may encounter “Monster Level” 3 monsters on the 1st level of the dungeon.

Moreover, while these tools were available, reading the advice to players in the 1e Player’s Handbook, it is clear that players should expect the DM to try to trick them into undertaking more risk than expected. Long sloping passages that lead down to another level without being noticed, chutes that do the same (but obviously!), and traps that cut off retreat are to be expected.

In 1e, not only is managing risk the player’s job, but the DM is expected to make this difficult. Not impossibly so – the DM is not supposed to be a jerkwad – but difficult enough to push the players into upping their game.

The modern obsession with balanced encounters starts with the idea that it is the GM, not the players, who must find the balance point. In a game where the GM forces the players to dance to his tune (and thus forces encounters upon the players, ala 3e, 4e, or most “adventure paths”), it makes sense that the GM has an increased responsibility to make those encounters “fair”. Applied to all gaming, though, the idea is a nightmare. Every time you hear that the GM has “made a mistake” and has to “correct an encounter” as the reason for fudging, the idea that the GM should balance encounters is at its heart.

I do not like games where the book, or the GM, is supposed to balance the encounters. I like games in which the GM is supposed to allow enough context to exist (which does not, by the way, mean that the context simply appears without being sought out by the PCs) to allow the players to generally balance the encounters. And which allows the players to be wrong. 

Some players will "play it safe", while others will take great risks, courting disaster in order to have a chance for great rewards. That is, to me, part of the interest of the game.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Following Thing (DCC Halloween monster)

The Following Thing: Init +2; Atk bite +4 melee (1d3 plus DC 13 paralyzing venom); AC 15; HD 3d8+10; hp 30; MV 30’ or climb 30’; Act 1d20; SP venom, pursue, impossible to kill, one night only; SV Fort +4, Ref +4, Will +18; AL C.

It looks like a well-dressed man in a long black suit with tails, but its face is a stag skull with dead white eyes. It does not walk, but crawls on all surfaces with equal ease. Once it selects a victim, it will pursue that victim relentlessly, attempting to paralyze it with its venomous bite (Fort DC 13 or paralyzed 1d3 rounds) in order to remove and eat its victim’s eyes. It can remove and devour one eye each round from a helpless victim.

Once a victim is selected, the Following Thing can always follow it, appearing 1d6 x 10’ away in a random direction each time an insurmountable barrier is placed between it and its prey. (The judge may wait to have the Following Thing appear so as to build up tension.) If successfully Turned or slain, its body fades away with a high-pitched giggling noise, and it is forced to wait 3d6 turns (30 to 180 minutes) to reform and pursue. It is impossible to kill.

The Following Thing is only active against its selected victim for one night; once dawn arrives the victim is no longer followed. How it chooses its victims is unknown, but some have speculated that miscast spells or the gods’ great disapproval might draw it. In some tales, the Following Thing appears as a punishment, sent by forsworn patrons. Few people are ever selected by the Following Thing more than once, and the Wise believe that there is only one such monster in all the multiverse.

(The wise may, of course, be wrong.)

Throw this monster into your Halloween adventure!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Tough Love

Here is a little bit of GMing philosophy - when you play in my game, I am on your side. I really hope that you do well. I just won't do anything to ensure that you do well. Want to attempt something unusual? I will entertain what seem to be reasonable arguments. I will assign what seems like a fair chance, to me. The odds are good that, if I make a ruling, that ruling is skewed in the players' favour.

But the dice still fall where they may, and I will fudge neither rolls nor statistics nor monster behaviour to ensure either your success or your survival. I want you to succeed - I really do - but I want you to succeed in a meaningful way. That means giving your opponents the brains that they should have, and it means allowing bad things to happen as well as good. That means allowing a TPK to happen. And happen again. And happen again after that. Unless you do something to make it not happen.

When I brought this up on DragonsFoot, I was told that this was smoke and mirrors - the GM cannot both be on the players' side and act as an impartial referee. Let me rephrase that, because what I am saying is that the GM can be on the players' side and still understand the importance of refereeing impartially. Just as a player can advocate for his character fairly, without cheating. Hoping for a good outcome does not mean you screw the game in order to ensure it occurs.

If I was acting against the players, or even creating a completely impartial scenario, it would be all too easy to create situations where TPKs were inescapable. I would have a thick folder filled with the dead, and no players at the table, because, really, what would be the point? Even a "killer" dungeon like Death Frost Doom or The Tomb of Horrors is more player-friendly than a similar situation would "realistically" be.

And I play games with people I like. I feel for them when they lose a beloved character. I am happy for them when they succeed beyond hope.

I am on their side.

But I won't do anything to make them win. And the dice may not be.

And it is not always obvious to the players that I am on their side, either. It's fun when the going gets tough, and I am grinning like a hyena waiting for a wildebeest to fall. Even though I hope they find a way out, I relish the tight spot for what it is. 

These are not contradictory positions to take. Any player worth his salt relishes the dangerous moments as well. Although she might not be able to focus on her enjoyment of those moments at the time (being busy with trying to find a way to survive, or mourning the loss of a character), but those are the moments that are relived through gamer chatter days, months, and years later. 

A good GM is on the side of the players, and wants them to do well and have fun, but is not on the side of the characters. A good GM knows that pulling punches removes the value of choice from the players, just as a good GM ensures that context is available for choices, but doesn't force context on the players if they choose to ignore it/not look for it. A good GM allows the players to make choices, and allows the characters to live or die by the quality of those choices.

A GM who punishes characters when the players make good choices, or coddles the characters when the players make poor choices, is undesirable. Both remove the greatest value that the tabletop game offers over other forms of entertainment.

Some players may think they want easy victories, or even guaranteed victories, but handing crap like that out is not what someone on your side does.

Call it tough love.