Suggested Blog Post, and an Anti-Module Rant (Free-Writting)

I am working on an article now, and it isn't ready. I do, however, like to try and post something at least once a week, this will be one of those free writing, unedited, first-draft things, so consider yourself warned.

Oaks Spalding has been doing some phenomenal work on his blog Save Versus All Wands, my favorite being "Why Do Player's Enjoy Being Puppets?", there is also a link in there to another good article where he defends Gygax from a younger user of D&D. Both are very well written and if you haven't seen them yet, well, there they are.

Now at the end of the article, I would like to point out a comment. A very negative comment that is strange, apparently there is a large enough caucus of people who believe some strange things and are loud enough to be heard. The most obvious belief is that there is only one way to play the game, and that is through modules. I've seen this opinion crop up a lot in the last few weeks, and it is okay to feel that way. If modules are your thing GREAT! They personally bore me to death, but to each their own. What bothers me is the aggressiveness of the campaign. At first, I thought that it was a joke. Many of us are networked together to take the game back from Corporate America and restore it back where it belongs, at the table.

Our goal should be a simple one, remove all prep. Run a game for anybody at any time any place. Perilous Dreamer from The Ruins of Murkhill is an example of a Dungeon MASTER, notice the stress on the Master.  We call ourselves Dungeon Masters, but for most of us, we're students.

I have studied lots of modules, I've got a good collection of them from all different eras. I have never run most of them, modules to me are more trouble than what they are worth. They say that they help you save time, but I must be doing it wrong because after reading, memorizing, correcting errors, tailoring it to my table, chopping it up so it's better organized, adding to it, cutting out garbage, I spent more time prepping the thing than I ever have just done my own thing.  The worst part about modules is that, without fail, half way through, after I'm done prepping the thing, I get bored of it. I had played this game during prep, I don't get to play it at the game table. That, to me, sucks. Another thing that sucks is that at the end of the day, this wasn't "OUR" game, it was somebody else's, I was just an editor. I felt like this soon after DMing and getting screwed by TSR, and being tricked into thinking that it was a failure of mine that my setting doesn't comply with the latest and greatest published version of it.

By studying a good variety of modules, and being critical about the content, figuring out what works, what is a trap, what we hate or love about something, I learned what has been done already and can begin making my own design choices. The game is customized solely for those who show up on gameday. I am no longer studying modules, they are repetitive, repeating the same formula over and over again, the newer the module the more it hides its formula but the formula is still a repetition of the old ones.

I have found fresher ideas by directing my studies to war games. I find that applying wargaming theories to D&D creates a more open world that feels more complex than it really is. A story does not have to dictate progress, I enjoy that element, but I am not a slave to it. Committing to actions, making decisions, interacting with the world around them, that is what dictates progress. In a video game, if you lose a scenario you have to try again until you win, this isn't the case in D&D. That is part of what makes it work, if you fail, the world doesn't stop, it keeps going.

I used to think that the DM was in charge of the content, but they aren't. The player is. The DM designed things, but the more open the better. If you have an interesting design, the players will do their damnedest to find it, and if you did a really good job, then they won't even notice that they haven't found it yet.

If the story plays itself out as a reaction to the players, constantly changing and morphing into something that was not predicted by the designer, is it actually a story, or is it something else?

This stuff all sounds very complicated, but it isn't. The only prep that I really need to do prior to the game is to mentally put myself in this place. If my players are at a loss for what they should be doing, I can give them different options, but typically this isn't the case.


Dave Arneson's True Genius (Review)

Half way through reading Robert J. Kuntz's book, DAVE ARNESON'S TRUE GENIUS, I wrote the following response on the Ruins of Murkhill BBS

You have, I feel, given the best definition of what it is that we do. Describing to others why we sit around a table and play pretend either ends well or it doesn't. You also identify and clarify thoughts that I have had about the system for years but in a concise way which both strengthens and expands what I have been grasping at for so long.

I had taken a very long break from gaming, and when I came back to it, I played MUCH differently than I did as a youngster. The game functions better, we took our time and just did what we wanted to. You go into a house to search it, there is no dice for that now, I make the player search it. One of the club's founding members returned for a game, he had heard that it wasn't just a hack and slash anymore and he got curious about it. During play he'd try old tactics that rely on dice, and would get frustrated when I forced him to use his brain instead; however, the very next session he came back ready to go.

I had a hard time grasping what I did, what was different, and I finally figured it out! I allowed the player's thoughts and ideas to become more important to the game than the dice. If the player can't mentally accomplish a goal, or just becomes overwhelmed, we can always use the dice, but we don't have to. People come first, not the system. This philosophy, once it takes hold, changes the dynamics of the game in a positive way. This book really reinforces this principle, and even extends my personal awareness of how far this knowledge can really take us.

Thank you!

Copyright Three Line Studios
After finishing reading the book, my thoughts about it really haven't changed. The book contains a bit of personal history from an original designer; but, it isn't a history book. The book has no mechanics, nor does it tell you how to design worlds; what this book does do is that it describes the engine that makes the game so addictive and allows you, the reader, to understand the engine for yourself. True Genius is much longer than the page count, it is interactive as it requires you to take the ideas presented to continue the thought processes and what they mean to you personally.

The engine itself is larger than Dungeons & Dragons, in fact, Dungeons & Dragons places limitations upon it to stop it from reaching its full potential. The purpose of the game system isn't to help you, the end user, nor does it govern or improve the engine, the primary purpose of Dungeons & Dragons is to sell you Modules and to pretend that it is the best at what it does, when this is far from the truth.

If you are ready for this book, it is here, but beware that it will challenge what you know and encourage you to evolve. It exposes things that other designers know but don't want you to. The only critical issue I have with the book is that I feel that it could had been improved by a harsher editor, I sure wouldn't want that job! On average, most people have a 9th Grade reading level, however since this is a hobby primarily made up of readers, that average is probably somewhere in the collage level, still, I find it to be a bit too academic minded at times. Some find his word choices to be either intellectually intimidating, or thought provoking. The man is describing something that has never been fully described yet, with ideas as large as this (the engine), language itself is slow to catch up. This barrier has always been an obstacle, going right back to Arneson.

What I was hopping from this book were some insights on Dave's behavior while in the company, which are addressed, very clearly. I also wanted to know what Mr. Arneson's lost notes said, they, regrettably, are gone, but Rob does elude to some motivations of why this is. While those notes have no doubt been destroyed, Rob Kuntz, I believe, does his best to describe the contents of them. They didn't describe D&D, there was no D&D, they attempted to define the engine itself, which, like I said, is the exciting part of this book. This engine is the focus, and it, my friends is a very large yet illusive concept. The intent of the engine wasn't to recreate games that had already happened, it can do that, but as a resource, it is capable of so much more; how much more will only be discovered once we unshackle ourselves from the influences of people who aren't even at our gaming tables.

The target audience for this title is for those who are very very advanced. Those who have noticed the limitations set in place by their system of choice; any system. It is also of interest to those who study the history of our hobby, the information presented here is first-hand accounts, however that is not its goal, outside of helping you grasp what the engine is and how it was restricted right from the gate.

If you are serious, or just on the fence about developing your own designs, as I was; this book will provide motivation and direction. It defies my normal grade standards as it isn't a DM or Player Guide, it isn't something that you can apply to your current system, it is it's own thing. I will, however, state that this book is important. It's ultimate goal overshadows the status quo and forces you to question it. It also sets out to, hopefully, allow the hobby to grow beyond its current stagnation set in place by traditional formulas and be allowed to take greater leaps into future innovative designs. Wouldn't that be nice? 

The book itself is only available on the Three Studios webpage if you are waiting for it to come out digitally, I've been told that that isn't going to happen. A Kindle version would had been nice, but for the small press, Amazon takes a huge bite and leaves the Author unfairly compensated.

Gothic Earth Session 9: Burn The Witches (Experimental Design Notes)

Via Pinterest
This session report is mostly about game design; we tried something new and the players got a ton of work done. I've tried a couple of times to write up the notes into some linear fashion but they always turned into short stories, so instead, I will make this very brief.

 In session 8 the players got one over on me. For years I have always been able to get away with mobs. Lynchings involving lots of people are dangerous and wicked things! For the most part, my players have never been able to settle one down; until session 8. Through very good Role-play and quick thinking, the players were able to stop the terrified and riled up citizens of Belalp from playing into the villain's game plan.

From the enemies point of view, this was a well-thought out and calculated move that was critical to the master plan. There are agents operating within the village of Belalp, and one specifically was going to be rewarded that night. They had framed the old woman, instigated a lynching, and planned to use it as a distraction to steal a baby for a vile ritual which would greatly increase the agent's power as well as the mastermind's.

This didn't happen, the mastermind found themselves perilously exposed to discovery, the evidence against the old woman was solid enough to cause a gut reaction but not good enough to withstand any close scrutiny, and no baby was stolen; thus no ritual was performed and the plan was thwarted.

The players definitely earned this win! They now had a chance to force an encounter with the enemy before it had a chance to reach its full potential. The players had been able to give themselves a three-day window to figure out what is going on, identify the enemy agent, and deal with them.

The elements of having the perfect game were there: Allow the agent to steal the baby, accurately predict where the ritual was to take place and catch her and her boss in the act. Of course, we all know that the perfect game is an elusive thing, but the potential was there.

I wanted things to be tense, as well as frantic; I've toyed around with time-based adventures before, but never really was all that happy with the results. My villains had their work cut out for them, they had a lot to do in a very small window, they had to strengthen the evidence against the old women, create another diversion, set the groundwork for a fast and precise kidnapping, and complete the ritual while the old woman burned, preferably along with the PC's.

I decided to try something new, I really enjoy strategy games and I thought that this scenario would fit that format in a very interesting way. Instead of using a clock to count time, the players, and the villains had a limited amount of actions allotted to them to complete their goals.

Now there is a problem with this, strategy games are difficult, you have to experiment for a while until you hit upon formulas that work, D&D is very different. There are no redos in Dungeons & Dragons. There are no take-backs, either. I had to figure out a way to make this game fair for both sides; while I enjoy strategy games, my players might not, and it is them on the hot-seat, not me. 

So, I got to designing. I decided that 13 Actions might be enough; it would hopefully give them enough wiggle room to let them make an error or two without the entire thing becoming impossible to win. I wanted a really good challenge, and a difficult game, but not something that was too mentally demanding.

Prior to play, I laid out the ground rules.

  • Play is broken up into a set number of actions. Day 1 has 3 actions, Days 2 and 3 each have 5. 
  • At the end of the game, Events will play themselves out, independently.
  • The party is not allowed to split up, each action must be done as a team. This is out of fairness to the enemy who has the same amount of actions as the players do.
  • Movement Rates are going to be ignored, it is free to walk in all civilized spaces, but there is a charge of 3 actions if one goes out into the wilderness.
  • There is no need to go out into the wilderness.
  • While the players are limited in actions, once one is declared, you are allowed as much time as you need to to explore the location and complete the action.
We took our time before beginning, this is a strange playstyle and I wasn't sure if it would work or not, we were play-testing. I let them know that if I feel that the game failed because of something that I did, then we'd replay it in a more traditional game. By the third day I knew that the game had worked.

SECRET RULES

I kept some rules of play a secret for pacing reasons, I also had to keep the game fair. Like I said, D&D doesn't give one much time to think, evidence has to be loud enough so that puzzles can be solved in real-time at the table.

At the end of each day, if they went back to their cabin they got a free turn which was used as a briefing. The NPC ally Dr. Van Helsing would talk with them about what they had figured out. Now Van Helsing, in order to function, had his own motivations and biases. I didn't give anything away, I just asked leading questions so that they could have a better chance of thinking clearly and faster than if they had just been left to ponder this stuff on their own. I did limit the number of times that Van Helsing could eliminate a false lead and point them into a different direction.

In regards to enemy activity, for the most part, I kept it so that when the heroes made a move, the enemy moved at the same time. I had a short list dictating daily objectives for the enemy, however, they were not limited to these actions, they had to be responsive to the players. An attack meant to draw attention to itself would force the players to make a decision, complete their planned action and let the police handle the attack, or investigate the scene itself. As always, my villains played to win. Some enemy actions were just distractions while others were productive. Some went undetected, while others; since the players were close to the locations in question, were noticed.

If at anytime the enemy and the player chose the same location, I would have rolled a secret initiative but this never came up. What I ended up with was a nice clean investigation game, it made in-town exploration exciting, everyone was on the same page, and running the NPCs was a breeze!

The time required to play this scenario out was perfect for the time we had allotted to us, as DM I was able to maintain a strong grip on pacing, which was important because I wanted the players to experience the pressure that their characters were under. They were able to acquire LOTS of information about the village and the people who live there (too much to write here). They had to choose their moves wisely, they did make a few errors which I had expected, but by the last turn I judged that the game had succeeded, they knew who the agent was, what her plan was, now they just had to predict her last move.

The game wasn't perfect for either side. That last turn was one of the most intense moments that I had ever had in D&D, I so wanted to help them, they had almost played the perfect game but this last move had to be precise for them to pull it off. In the end, they made the wrong decision but this was a really difficult game. They still ended up winning. The agent hiding in the village of Belalp was exposed and became a loose end, the mastermind knew that it was just a matter of time before she led the heroes right to them, so the agent was eliminated.

The heroes were able to stop the enemy from thripling its strength, but the agent who eliminated his co-conspirators and former boss is now a local hero as he was able to steal all of the glory from the players and become untouchable.

Over all, this was a very well played game that was demanding on the players' skill to get a job done in a limited amount of time that was simulated perfectly. It was definitely gamey, the mechanics were more out in the open than I normally have them, but it more than made up for it in playability. This is something that I will definitely be doing again.

Balance By Design: It isn't what you think it is

http://mythcreants.com/blog/four-reasons-balance-matters-in-roleplaying-games/
Folks around here hate the word “Balance”, and I get it, there is no movement with balance. I myself am on the record as stating, “When the players can try anything, there is no such thing as balance.” Yet, you look in the books, and you see designers talking about balance all the time, and they insist that it is present. 
There is a problem in translation: for most of us laymen, we associate balance with equality. Chess is a seemingly balanced game. Everyone starts out with the same amount of pieces in the exact same spaces and it is all equal until play begins.
Chess, however, from a design standpoint, is not a well-balanced game. It is a game of skill: while two people of the same skill level can enjoy the game, the most skilled player is always going to win. There is no way for me to beat a chess master, I may enjoy getting clobbered, but the skilled gamesman is going to win every time.

To best examine the inner-workings of game balance as it applies to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (since it is such a hidden system), we'll look at another game that is popular and itself providing a giant leap in game design: Axis & Allies (A&A). There is no game master, so the rules controlling the game are all out in the open, it hides nothing. A&A is a strategy game, but like D&D, it is also both a team and an individual game.

http://avalonhill.wizards.com/games/axis-and-allies


Setting up the game and playing it for the first time, A&A doesn't appear to be balanced at all, however, it is, very beautifully so. On the surface you've got the Axis powers, they appear to have the best position: their forces are centralized and they have the most powerful military, however, as the game progresses this balance will shift during play. The Allies are able to build units more quickly than the Axis.
  • The early game favors the Axis 
  • The middle is equal
  • The late game favors the Allies. 
The balance of the game isn't fixed, it fluctuates, thus it dictates  different strategies. The Axis have a limited amount of time to win the game through offensive force, while the Allies are playing a defensive game, slowing down the game as much as possible to give them time to gather their strength. That is a balanced design. 
https://boardgamegeek.com/image/126739/axis-allies

The balance in the game isn't equal; play is dynamic and allows everyone to play the game on equal terms, regardless of skill level. Sure the odds are in favor of the most skilled player, but they can choose more difficult countries to run, and give less skilled players the easier ones. Victory isn't just dictated by skill alone, nor does it depend simply on luck, these things factor in, but that is what makes this game so playable.

More in relation to D&D, A&A is a team game, if the players who are playing the Allies don't work together, they are going to get annihilated. Like the D&D Fighter, you have England, it has a huge army, however, it is scattered around the map, not centralized like Germany. England has to give its allies enough time to build up their forces, but at the same time, if they sacrifice too much then their removal from the board will cause the downfall of the Allied forces.

You have the United States that begins play much like the wizard class, it is weak but it has the potential to become the strongest force on the board, but even at its most powerful, it still needs England. Each nation has it's own group strategy, as well as a personal strategy. Each nation is different, some are so difficult it is almost impossible to play, but skilled A&A players gain respect if they are able to master them.

This is all esoteric really. Let's move on to something that more closely resembles D&D.

The majority of users don't play wargames, but the original designers did. Wargames teach you a new definition of balance and how it applies to the D&D system. Let's set up a simple scenario:

You've got a Prince returning from war, he's been gone for a few years and the Regent really doesn't want him to return, everything was going so great without the Prince!

We'll set up our scenario out in the open, the Regent has chosen a spot to do battle on the road. He wants a nice open space to use his superior numbers to his advantage. His units out number the units of the Prince three-to-one.

To make things interesting, we'll give the Princes men more skill and a higher morale rating than the Regents troops.

Who is going to win? Will the Regent's numbers overwhelm the Prince's elite but battered troops? Or will the Prince be able to break the Regent's defenses and move on to retake the capital? We don't know. We could probably run this simple scenario a few times and have different results each time. That makes things interesting, and while it doesn't appear to be balanced on the surface, it is.

If this battle was perfectly even, we could decide it all with a percentile dice, but since each side has weaknesses and strengths, we have an interesting scenario that is worth running on our table.

Balance isn't about keeping things fair, it is about keeping the game interesting. 

If we introduce a dragon to first level characters, we should strive to end up with a scenario that they will lose, but can survive if they are skillful and a little lucky. Something has to be there which allows escape or an equalizer of some kind, even if that strategy is to run like hell and regroup.

But are the players actually beaten? Now the players know what they are up against, and can start a defensive game to minimize the creature's influence until the players feel they are strong enough to challenge its power or come up with a scheme which gives them an advantage over the more powerful opponent. The DM can kill them at any time, but what would the point of that be? In this case, we balance player skill vs. the chaotic might of a dragon. Who is going to win? We don't know, not until we run it.

Balance has nothing to do with keeping the game fair, or even. A high-level wizard is still going to need the protection of the fighter if he doesn't then why make the fighter play at all? On the same note, the low-level wizard is still able to contribute, he isn't just a liability. This is balanced as well, but that enforces the idea of teamwork and really isn't our problem. The players still have to pick their moves based on individual and group benefits. The better the team, the cooler the adventures that they are going to have.


Additional Links:

Nerd out with me:  'Axis & Allies' - A Buyers Guide

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