Twitter-Inspired Thoughts, Part III: Why 4e D&D “Failed” (Did It Really?) @newbiedm @Dm_LSP @MerricB #DnD #5e

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Last Saturday, I tweeted the following.

All of those discussions were inspired by or involved NewbieDM, S Keldor lord of Castle Greyskull DMLSP (that’s a mouthful), Roving Band of Misfits, and Merric Blackman. I can say that NewbieDM and Merric are good at doing that; I’ve never interacted with S Keldor. Note that while I’ll be quoting them in these posts, much like my brain at 3 am acknowledged about me, I can’t do their arguments justice either. You’ll have to click through to see everything they’ve said. My only purpose here is to express my own opinions while providing context for their genesis and giving credit to those that inspired them. If you want to know what they think, click through and ask them to clarify.

To keep my posts short, each issue will be dealt with in its own post, all with this same introduction. | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV |

Part 3: Why 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons “Failed” (Did It)?

Here’s where I pick a fight. 🙂 To make sure you stay laser focused on my point, here’s my thesis up front: 4e was not a significantly less marketable game design than 5e; it was simply a victim of circumstances beyond the control of its designers. Ergo, while you’re free to legitimately hate its mechanics, you can’t reasonably argue that it was a failure. 5e would have suffered from the same circumstances if it were released in 2008.

4th Edition D&D is my favorite edition of D&D (stay focused!), so I love the nostalgic ramblings I’m seeing on Twitter. As S Keldor noted, not everyone agrees.

Wizards of the Coast has never been in the business of losing money. As S Keldor pointed out, they kept producing material despite this supposed failure. 4th Edition didn’t fail in a meaningful sense of the word. They, and others, thought that they didn’t succeed enough; hence, the relatively quick release of 5th Edition. Maybe. Let’s dive a little deeper.

Why wasn’t 4e as successful as it could have been? Here was Merric’s answer (again, just 280 characters of it) and my response.

I love Merric’s ramblings on Twitter and respect his analysis and opinions, so I say this with a great deal of respect.

Starting first with my third point, he analogizes 4e to a movie that cost twice as much to make as it took in as a profit. Even respecting that he was exaggerating, for the analogy to stick you must presume that 4e costs more to make than 5e. To my knowledge, 5e books cost just as much to produce as 4e books (maybe more adjusting for inflation). The cost to produce the game isn’t higher. A more appropriate analogy is to two movies, one that costs $1M to make and that brought in $100M at the box office, and another that cost $1M to make and that brought in $200M at the box office. Both are successful, but one more than the other. The “failure,” therefore, is less about failing per se and more about missing an opportunity to have done even better.

Logarithmic v. Linear Thinking

Now, I’m no economist, and I don’t have access to WotC‘s sales reports, but I’m at least as good as most of you at analysis and speculation. As I stated in my third point, there are probably other factors that affect one’s interpretation of “failure.” How much better are 5e’s sales if factoring in inflation? Also, let’s consider the difference between raw numbers and percentages. If we have 10 consumers, and 5 of them buy a product, you’ve captured 50% of the consumer base. Now let’s say that by the time you produce your new product, the consumer base has jumped to 20 (not due to marketing, but because the population in general has doubled), and 7 of them buy a product. You’ve captured more consumers, and therefore are making more money with the second product, but you’ve captured only 35% of the consumer base. Anyone that’s ever rolled a d20 should know this. 😉 In other words, your new product may represent the “missed opportunity” above despite looking like it was a greater success. I doubt that’s what happened here — as Merric did, I’m using a simple equation to illustrate a point — but without proof to that effect, and not just taking WotC‘s word for it, we can’t reasonably argue from our couches as to the full context. Either way, it’s outlandish to believe that WotC didn’t make a profit off of 4e, so even merely analogizing to such an example is a bit off the mark.

Unit Cost

Let’s now assume that 5e overcomes all of that. How should I know they didn’t? Let’s say that the cost to produce their books is less than the cost to produce 4e books, which would validate Merric’s use of his analogy. Let’s also say that 5e is outselling 4e adjusting for both inflation and general population increases. This still doesn’t address several important factors. I’ll deal with the simple issue first. If it currently costs less to produce RPG books today than it did between 2008 through 2011 due to market factors, then that would have applied if 5e was produced during that span. That is, if 5e were released in 2008, its costs would have matched that higher cost of production. That can’t be said to be a failure specific to 4e’s mechanics, so 4e could still be seen as the most successful it (or 5e) could have been at the time. Remember, we’re trying to figure out if 4e’s design was a mistake. You can’t use generally applicable circumstances to justify that position.

Market Hysteria

Here’s the bigger issue representing points 1 and 2 in my post above, and it isn’t meant as a counter to anything Merric said, but rather what I’ve heard over the past 13 years on the subject. Without exception, the community always had a large subset that reacted very poorly to the announcement of a new edition, even if some of those naysayers were destined to accept the new edition once it was released. 4e was no exception. Accusations that 4e ruined the game flew by like those damned cicadas even before the game was released, meaning those accusations were based on ignorance. This, in turn, means they were really based on emotion (**see sidebar below). RPGs are expensive, and being the market leader with the most valuable trademark in the industry, WotC is clearly no exception to that rule. They can charge what they want, and consumers will pay that amount, but those consumers won’t be happy having to spend that amount of money all over again for the new edition to keep up with their fellow gamers. This sense of entitlement isn’t unique to gamers, but clearly gamers aren’t immune to it. We just call it nerd rage when applied to gamers and our kin.

** A good example of this was 1st level hit points. When 4th edition was released, one of the complaints was that 1st level characters had too many hit points, making them too durable. 3.5e, they said, had a much more reasonable number of hit points. It didn’t take long for 4e defenders to point to similar complaints about 3.5e. There were posts (lost to time) complaining that 3.5 characters had too many hit points because they didn’t have to roll for them at first level. That is, if their hit die was a d8, they didn’t roll a d8 for starting hit points, but instead just received 8 hit points. Even that was deemed too much. Why? Because those naysayers were looking for an excuse to complain, and they latched onto 1st level hit point mechanics to give credibility to their nerd rage. The more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.

The Perfect Storm

In comes Paizo, who lost the license for publishing Dragon and Dungeon magazines. However, unlike the other third parties publishing official content, they were in a position to make a move to compete seriously via Pathfinder. I don’t have access to the internal machinations of Paizo, but I (and you) personally know that they had a foothold not just in the gaming community generally, but specifically in the D&D community. Paizo took advantage of both their position and that customary anger/resentment, giving those naysayers what they wanted, even including a living campaign. People fear change, and Pathfinder gave a certain group a means to avoid it (to a large extent). Moreover, their public playtest was launched (2007) before 4e was released (2008), so by the time consumers were making their decision to invest in 4e, they knew that Pathfinder was not merely a twinkle in some nerd’s eye. This was a real game that was going to be published come Avernus or high water by a talented set of designers, and it was more familiar than what was coming from WotC. No other edition of D&D faced this combination of talent, market presence, timing, and appeal to the naysayers. None. How would 5e have fared against this perfect storm of competition? How would any game or edition have fared? These are obvious but inconvenient questions that are, unsurprisingly, ignored by the 4e haters.

Finally, I’ll remind you of what I wrote yesterday. The game has a low barrier to entry for players but high barrier entry to casual adventure designers. That’s a strength of marketing, but not of game design. That is, 5e doesn’t necessarily sell better because it’s a more enjoyable game, but because it’s built to force sales on the consumer. This isn’t at all devious or “wrong,” but I believe it’s an accurate assessment that cuts against the notion that 4e was a mistake.

WotC Did a Good Job with 4e

This is why I don’t believe WotC’s abandonment of 4e was a sign of failure. If not for those outside factors completely beyond the control of the game’s designers, the naysayers would have come back around as they always have. Because they didn’t, 5e was released sooner rather than later as an attempt to regain what WotC had lost at the hands of an intelligent, talented, and opportunistic competitor. WotC was punished for experimenting and knew that they needed to go backwards in some ways (even offering strategic mea culpas at times) to get back that share of the market. I don’t think that the following equation is perfect, but it’s probable that most of Pathfinder‘s revenue represents money that otherwise would have gone to 4e. It’s impossible to prove but also impossible to disprove; however, it makes sense based on history. When all was said and done, a significant portion of the naysayers would have come around and invested in 4e, had fun playing well-written adventures with good friends, developed a nostalgic attachment to the game (if not love), and cried just as hard when 5e was eventually announced (regardless of how they ranked 4e against other editions). The cycle would have repeated because those initial complaints are based on your financial investment in the game, not the game’s mechanics. If they were based on mechanics (which is perfectly reasonable; play what you like), you’d probably just keep playing that version and not worry about what everyone else was doing, but as history shows us, you’d have been in the minority if you left the D&D community altogether over a new edition.

So, add Pathfinder‘s sales to 4e’s sales and tell me with a straight face (and reliable, hard data) that 4e wouldn’t have been just as successful as 5e, adjusting for inflation and population. Seriously, tell me. I don’t know the numbers. I’m going off of my extensive, well-connected, but ultimately anecdotal experiences. 5e may legitimately be doing better than 4e, but I bet those speculative 4e numbers are far from “failure” numbers.

Haters Gonna Hate

All of this is to say that the factors that went into 4e’s disappointing sales numbers would have impacted 5e as well, so calling 4e a mistake is unfair until proven otherwise. This is unsurprising considering that those same 4e haters use every mention of 4e to spew vitriol on 4e and those that love it (no accusation intended towards Merric; he’s always respectful). Because Pathfinder gave 4e haters a “3.75e” D&D for a large community, and even gave them a living campaign on top of that, they didn’t have to get over their hate, so they never did. We can’t stop the vitriol, of course, but we can call it what it is: pathetic and assinine (the latter is intentionally misspelled). When they use sales numbers without proper context as a placeholder for their hate, it’s almost certainly based on ignorance or evasion of that context. Of course, no one should spew such vitriol at someone who legitimately prefers 3.5e, Pathfinder, or 5e, but that’s a relatively rare occurrence. The only people I’ve seen do that are those few playing only AD&D or 2nd Edition.

In any case, to say 4e failed, and that 5e was objectively a more marketable design, you have to prove that 5e wouldn’t have been similarly impeded if it had been presented as the 4th edition of D&D at that particular time in history, and so far I’ve seen no one even address that issue, let alone prove it to my satisfaction. I’d be interested in seeing data supporting that position.

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Twitter-Inspired Thoughts, Part II: 5th Edition D&D Is Accessible. So What? @newbiedm @Dm_LSP @MerricB @Pablodnd @DarkplaneDM @LeslieGMgrrl @ChattyDM #DnD #5e

If you enjoy this post, please retweet it.

Last Saturday, I tweeted the following.

All of those discussions were inspired by or involved NewbieDM, S Keldor lord of Castle Greyskull DMLSP (that’s a mouthful), Roving Band of Misfits, and Merric Blackman. I can say that NewbieDM and Merric are good at doing that; I’ve never interacted with S Keldor. Note that while I’ll be quoting them in these posts, much like my brain at 3 am acknowledged about me, I can’t do their arguments justice either. You’ll have to click through to see everything they’ve said. My only purpose here is to express my own opinions while providing context for their genesis and giving credit to those that inspired them. If you want to know what they think, click through and ask them to clarify.

To keep my posts short, each issue will be dealt with in its own post, all with this same introduction. | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV |

Part #2: 5th Edition D&D Is Accessible. So What?

This one starts with NewbieDM.

Notice my comment: 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is accessible. In our community, that means there’s a low bar to entry, so I was saying that picking up 5th Edition is easy for new players. I’m not alone in my view.
This is certainly going to be shorter than yesterday’s post, because that’s my entire point.

We all understand why it’s important for a game to be accessible: You can’t sell books to new or casual players if the game is too complex. People want instant (or at least quick) gratification from their games. If they’re always being run over by the hardcore gamers that study the game as if it was their full-time job, then the game’s community will inevitably consist of only hardcore gamers. Game designers need to keep that big picture in mind. However, there’s more to the big picture. They also have to appeal to their current players, giving them more to discover as they learn the game. If the game doesn’t keep giving more at a rate that satisfies players’ needs for new material, and the release schedule doesn’t compensate for that, then the success won’t last.

Also of note is that the one and only serious gripe I have about 5e is its encounter building system. You have to run your numbers through a formula to produce your encounter, then run that encounter through another formula to get it right, solving a partial differential equation along the way (not really). Even then, creatures like the Banshee make it impossible to know whether those formulas produced an encounter with the intended difficulty. As for DMs — and more to the point, adventure designers — the game really isn’t that accessible, and I lost interest in trying to build fair or accurate encounters long before other things took me away from playing RPGs. The only thing that saves 5e in this narrow regard is, as I said yesterday, the beauty of the 5e Monster Manual. So, we have a low barrier to entry for players, resulting in a huge number of players buying Player’s Handbooks, but a high barrier to entry to casual adventure designers, resulting in a huge number of DMs resorting to buying adventures. Hmmm, good marketing strategy, I guess. 🙂

So, all but one of the responses I saw to NewbieDM’s tweet mentioned accessibility, and that’s great, but only one mentioned anything else. This shared observation answers NewbieDM’s question as such: Other than accessibility, the consensus is that 5e doesn’t do anything better than any prior edition of D&D. This isn’t a fatal flaw, of course, because 5e is fun, and people are sticking with it. Perhaps a focus on accessibility is the best approach. After all, 5e is reported to be selling better than all previous editions, but that observation seems to ignore another part of the bigger picture. Could they have done even better if they had taken a different approach? Is the reason for their unprecedented success based on other factors that didn’t apply before (and may not apply in the future)? Despite the success, is there yet another lesson to learn for other game designers? Well, that’s for my next post on these Twitter thoughts and will probably be far more controversial.

More foreshadowing!

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Twitter-Inspired Thoughts, Part I: This is Why the 5th Edition D&D Monster Manual is My Favorite RPG Bestiary @newbiedm @Dm_LSP @MerricB #DnD #5e

If you enjoy this post, please retweet it.

Last Saturday, I tweeted the following.

All of those discussions were inspired by or involved NewbieDM, S Keldor lord of Castle Greyskull DMLSP (that’s a mouthful), Roving Band of Misfits, and Merric Blackman. I can say that NewbieDM and Merric are good at doing that; I’ve never interacted with S Keldor. Note that while I’ll be quoting them in these posts, much like my brain at 3 am acknowledged about me, I can’t do their arguments justice either. You’ll have to click through to see everything they’ve said. My only purpose here is to express my own opinions while providing context for their genesis and giving credit to those that inspired them. If you want to know what they think, click through and ask them to clarify.

To keep my posts short, each issue will be dealt with in its own post, all with this same introduction. | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV |

Part 1: This is Why the 5th Edition D&D Monster Manual is My Favorite RPG Bestiary

The 4e and 5e Monster Manuals took opposite approaches to how they loaded them with monsters. Very generally, and something you all already know, the Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition Monster Manual (let’s just say MM going forward) sacrificed variety for detail. The 4eMM1 (get it?) was the first bestiary we had for 4e, yet it didn’t include some iconic monsters such as metallic dragons and frost giants. No frost giants?!?! Even a 4e apologist like me (stay focused!) complained. The trade off was that there was more room to discuss the ecology and history of the monsters that were included, and there were more stat blocks for each of those creatures within that group. Plus, we got humans as monsters. 😐

Bill Murray - Imgflip

5e took the opposite approach. With only a few exceptions, such as dragons, giants, and slaadi (I get a smug sense of satisfaction for knowing the proper plural form of slaad), we got no ecology or history and only one stat block per monster. This provided a lot of variety but considering how hard it is for new DMs to create monsters in 5e (compared to 4e), it was initially frustrating. On the bright side, they had room to give us the flumph. 😐

Bill Murray - Imgflip

Ironically, it would seem that WotC should have taken opposite approaches in both situations, giving us only one, easily-leveled monster for 4e, but giving us multiple monsters for 5e so that we didn’t have to figure out how to create them. But didn’t they? Foreshadowing!

Enough complaining. Considering the title of this post, there must be a happy ending. As a result of my one-stop stat blocks project, I have in my possession something that I’ll never publish: a Word document containing my treatment of all of the 5eMM stat blocks, including ones that aren’t actually in the 5eMM (i.e., variant giant lizards, diseased giant rats, cave bear, and variant insect swarms). That is, I recreated by rote every single stat block in the 5eMM and then some. That gave me some perspective that I’m not sure one can have without at least intently reading the book cover to cover relatively rapidly.

Reskinning monsters is pretty easy in 5e. Here are two examples. First, let’s look at the giants. Before my stat block project, I was arguing with a friend (let’s call him Rob #247). He didn’t like the 5eMM, and I did. He complained that all the giants were the same: weapon attack, throw a rock, and multiattack. He found it boring and uncreative. I don’t think that’s fair. First, it’s actually important that the giants are very similar. It gives a sense that the giants were related evolutionarily speaking. Granted, You have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief in order to play D&D, but when logic is successfully applied, it triggers our instincts for familiarity and order. Second, when you visit the glacial rift of the frost giant Jarl, you don’t expect to see many, if any, fire giants, stone giants, etc. Maybe you’ll see one other giant type who’s an envoy from his leader (such as the cloud giant ambassador in Steading of the Hill Giant Chief), but that’s about it. That means that you can easily adapt the stat blocks for the other giants into the ones you need, even at different CRs , without appearing to use the same stat blocks over and over. There are plenty of other creatures with similar formats (e.g., cyclopes) that can be used as any form of giant.

Let’s now consider the kraken. Maybe you want to unleash it (yeah, I know) on your PCs, but that’s not an option for low level characters. What do you do? Well, have a giant octopus capsize their raft. Still too high a level? Then have a rock capsize the raft, and send a bunch of octopuses (octopi isn’t an English word) attack them. Maybe such a low level encounter isn’t that high a priority for your adventure, making ordinary octopi (octopodes also isn’t an English word) unimportant, but if your BBEG is a kraken, they become important as a means of foreshadowing or providing a theme. Need a lower-CR treant? Try the awakened tree.

The bottom line: The stat blocks are connected in such a way that you realistically have several stat blocks at different CRs that can be trivially adapted to represent the monsters you want. Because the 5eMM went almost 100% in the direction it did, the connections are far better than I’ve ever seen in a bestiary. You don’t just have to reskin some unrelated monster. You can reskin something that’s really close to it both mechanically and thematically, no matter which one you choose. That makes the game far more accessible for DMs than it otherwise would be.

Talk about foreshadowing! My thoughts on accessibility are the topic of the next post!

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Bruno’s Earth: I Just Had to Do It @Wizards #copyright #DnD #RPG

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I bought something that arrived on Thursday. It’s stupid, and it appears to be the most brazen example of copyright infringement since Napster (though with far fewer consequences). For that reason, I didn’t want to support it. But I had to. It cost less than $15 with shipping.

I discovered via Facebook a game system known as Bruno’s Earth. I’m not going to post photos because of the nature of the infringement. Instead, I point you to the Amazon listings.

Bruno’s Earth Game Book
Bruno’s Earth Creature Manual

This book shamelessly copies the artwork from the AD&D Players’ Handbook and Monster Manual (and perhaps others), including the covers of the books. There’s no way you know about these books and not know that it’s infringement, yet Wizards of the Coast, who enforces and threatens a hell of a lot more than they have any right to, has apparently taken no action. It’s bizarre. I’d be surprised to hear that Wizards licensed it, but it’s certainly possible. Until I hear otherwise, I’m assuming that. Besides, as Kermit the frog might say, “But that’s none of my business.”

Oh, by the way, I haven’t had much of a chance to review the material beyond the artwork, but I can tell you that it’s riddled with language errors/typos. I’ve been told the game system itself rather sucks. I’ll let you know what I think of that when I’ve had the chance to really look it over.

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How I Prefer to Play Dungeons and Dragons, and Why I No Longer Do @Raddu76 @Luddite_Vic @SlyFlourish #DnD #RPG

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A couple of weeks ago, one of my posts raised some questions from my social media contacts both on Facebook and Twitter. Specifically, they were wondering what I meant when I said I played Dungeons & Dragons differently from most others. It’s tough to express what I mean by that, but there’s been some back and forth, so I’ve given some thought on how to express it. I’m going to do my best here in an uncharacteristically long post. I’d like to make four quick points for context before I explain.

1. For RPGs, I limit myself to D&D out of necessity. I could play other games (and have), but nothing is more accessible than whatever the current edition of D&D is, especially in light of the living campaign being run for that edition.

2. There’s no right way to play D&D. Nothing I’m saying is a criticism of how other people play except to the extent that I’m saying I don’t prefer to play that way myself. Moreover, I was in Sly Flourish’s home game for years, and people like me can absolutely coexist on the same table as people . . .  not like me. That was probably the best gaming group I’ve ever been in because no matter who was in the group, everyone let everyone else do their own thing. I credit the DM for creating that atmosphere. He certainly guides the game but always places fun ahead of his own ego. Not many DMs do. Unfortunately, my gaming experience has conditioned me to go along with what other people expect, so even in that game I’d often sabotage myself by becoming what I didn’t want to be. But if that’s the way you want to play, then go for it. Some people reading this will know I’m talking about them and their play style. They shouldn’t be offended. None of this is meant as an insult.

3. Combat is part of the game, and I’m capable of enjoying a good combat.

4. Luddite_Vic and I have been designing our own RPG for a few years now. It’ll probably never see the commercial light of day because we’re too busy to meet regularly, but to some extent game design can absolutely accommodate my play style. It can even encourage it, though the best game system is going to be one that allows anyone to play it the way they want to play it.

So, what am I talking about?

I’m an Actor

No, you shouldn’t be asking me for my autograph. I didn’t say that I’m a good actor.

There are several player types. Some players change their type over time, and some fall into several categories at once. I’m certainly what I call an actor. I create a character with at least one notable, obvious personality quirk, and I play that up for maximum effect. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it isn’t, but it always defines my character, so much so that years later people reference the quirk by shouting, “Honor duel!”, “Bongos!”, or something referencing a character, when they see me. Whether I’m in combat or not, if I’m not playing up that quirk (or quirks), I’m not having fun.

Sometimes character concepts fail, so in theory I could impose an annoying play style on others, but I don’t. If I make a mistake with a character concept, or if it just doesn’t work within the game system, I move on from it before it becomes a burden. I’m self-aware of the impact I have on others, so if I’m annoying you, it’s intentional 😊, but I avoid doing that with characters.

True Immersion

The key to me having a good time is true immersion in the game world. I don’t think many players do that, and I think the best way for me to explain this is through a few examples.

The simplest and most talked about example of that is alignment. If you’re playing a lawful good character, then your character should act as such. I see far too many players choosing an alignment because of some mechanical bonus it gives, or because it serves a class build well, but then they act according to tactical needs rather than character philosophy, and their alignment goes right out the window. Again, if it makes you happy, fine, but I think you’re losing something valuable by doing that. After all, rolling a critical hit isn’t really an accomplishment. It’s random unless you’re cheating. As the great philosopher, Neil Peart, once wrote, “The point of the journey is not to arrive.” Misplaced modifier aside, by that he meant that how you get somewhere can often be more rewarding than where you wind up.

Assuming your character has roughly the same alignment as you, is that how you’d behave in the real world? If you’re playing a character with vastly different morals than you, is that how such a character would behave in the real world? If not, you’re not immersing yourself in the game world.

Here’s a better example. I openly wanted to test a story line but covertly wanted to test whether others would be interested in my play style, so I took over a 4e campaign when our characters hit paragon level (11th level). This is 4th edition, so even the bard had at least 70 hit points. The first encounter in the paragon campaign was clearly underpowered. It was designed to be a “James Bond” moment, where everything started off with a bang, but the point was to deliver the story hook. Any experienced player could recognize that, and in fact they all did.

The characters were visiting “the Lawns,” which was an area of the city best described as a much smaller version of Central Park. Commoners were everywhere, and I had the PCs place themselves randomly on the board. There were three magical cages containing a bear, a destrachen, and a manticore, all of heroic tier. Collectively, they were no match for the PCs. A blast of energy wipes out the vegetation in the immediate area and causes the cages to burst open. The bard wins initiative. He’s standing near the bear, an elf, the elf’s two small children, and a human. He elects to run over to the manticore to gang up on it with two other PCs. I say, “Just in case neither the minis nor I have described the scene properly, you have the jump on the bear, and the bear has the jump on the commoners. If you run away, those commoners, including two children, are as good as dead.” He said he understood but was going for the better tactical move, and the other players agreed, saying, “Get over here!” (or words to that effect).

I know these players well, so I knew this would happen — this encounter was also designed by me to be an ethical set up — but I couldn’t believe they fell for it. What exactly is the “better tactical move”? In my mind it was to limit as much damage to the citizens as possible. That’s what heroes do. (If I recall correctly, only one character was neutral on the good-evil axis, and I know it wasn’t the bard.) The party instead defined “better tactical move” as personally taking the least amount of damage possible. (Later, I’ll provide more evidence that this is their thinking.) This was the case even though the bard would be looking at taking, at most, one healing surge worth of damage in a one-on-one combat against any one of them.

When the bear got its turn, I described the event in gruesome detail. The elf shouts out, “Run to your mother, children!” right before he’s disemboweled with one claw. Then the human has his face ripped off by the other claw. I don’t expect the players to lose any sleep over make-believe characters getting killed, but not one of the characters expressed the slightest bit of sadness or regret. And don’t think for a second that I missed it. I was watching them carefully and prodding them in character (through NPCs) to let me know what they thought about these events. From a meta perspective, that was the entire point of me taking over the game as DM.

Isn’t a role-playing game supposed to be about writing a story? What kind of a story are these “heroes” writing?

As I said, I knew this would happen because I knew these guys, and part of what I was testing was this principal of immersion. I was trying to see if the right story would change the players’ approach to the game. So, I had some more tricks up my sleeve. I bit my lip for three months waiting for the story to progress to a specific encounter. The players needed to research some very obscure information, so they visited the “Black Library.” This place held all the knowledge of the universe in special crystals, including dreams and memories.

The Black Library was at a very important place in the multiverse. It was near the “Grand Stairwell,” which (as far as mortal minds could perceive) is a stairwell that leads up and down to each of your potential final resting places after death (e.g., the Nine Hells, Archeron, Nirvana). There was always a long line of souls of the recently departed waiting their turns for final instructions. Go up four levels, go down two levels; whatever.

I asked the players to make a Perception check. It didn’t matter what they rolled. I said, “You seem to recognize one of the people in line,” and they took the bait. It was the elf they let die. He confronted them, and once again all of the player characters showed no remorse other than an insincere, “Sorry, but . . . .” I gave them one more shot though. The elf said, “Okay, I don’t agree, but I at least understand the tactical approach. So did you at least make sure my children were okay? Did they find my wife? My wife and three children, one of them a newborn, depended on my farming to earn a living. My wife doesn’t know how to farm, and now she must feed three young children on her own. How are they doing?”

This sounds really sad, and it was somewhat predictable considering the scene in which the elf (and human) were brutally killed. Nevertheless, I received no showing of true sympathy despite closely looking for it. Instead, the characters (players, really) stood their ground and responded (essentially), “It wasn’t our problem.” They were so intent on being right that they couldn’t muster any sympathy for such a tragic circumstance their choices created. And of course, even after this conversation, not one of the characters even suggested checking in on the elf’s family. These were 15th-level characters at this point with more wealth than entire towns, but they just didn’t care. If that’s how they wanted to play, so be it, but that’s not immersion.

As I said, when bad things happen to innocent but make-believe people, I don’t expect players to be sad, but I do expect their characters to be, especially where the bad things were the result of the characters’ own choices.

If you were in an analogous situation in the real world, would you have behaved this way? Would you have any remorse for these circumstances even though there was no financial reward or information to be gained?

Another Example: The Puzzle Encounter

I created a puzzle encounter, which I’ll describe here. There’s a magically charged, metal plate with an array of 100 lighted buttons (10 rows of 10) in front of it. Each button is numbered from 0 to 99 in order (left to right). You must figure out which buttons to push and in what order. If you fail, the plate will light up and zap you (but not your allies) for an amount of damage equal to the number of the button you should have pushed. For example, if you should have guessed 4 but pushed 87, you’d take 4 points of damage (not 87!). You then should push the 4 and continue with the sequence. Remember, at this level, the relatively fragile bard (now at 13th level) has at least 80 hit points, so even a 4 would result in 5% of his total. If you couldn’t figure out the answer before running out of buttons to push, you couldn’t try again in your lifetime, so another player would have to try this level. If you push two correct buttons in a row (something you could pull off by guessing in some cases), the plate acts as an elevator and moves you and your allies up to the next level, where you face the identical situation but with a different code. There are four levels you must pass to get reach your goal.

All this information was deduced care of an easy Arcana check. My intent wasn’t to hold back the nature of the puzzle at all, so if someone was confused, I freely shared any information they needed. What they never got was a hint as to what the code was applicable to each level. The only way to discern the codes were through trial and error, and that was the actual puzzle. Hit some buttons, get zapped for a tiny amount of damage, but figure out how to avoid it and move forward.

Answer: FYI, the codes were based on various sequences. The first sequence was a series of squares (i.e., 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, etc.), the second was a series of cubes (i.e., 1, 8, 27, 64), the third was the Fibonacci series (i.e., 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13), and the fourth was the digit product series (i.e., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 22, 26, 38, etc.). Again, the only way to discern the codes were through trial and error, and the players were angered by that. More on that later.

The point is this: If you truly immersed yourself in the game world, you wouldn’t have a problem with this puzzle. In fact, you’d expect this because of course this is how a puzzle would be designed. These are meant to keep out would-be intruders. They aren’t supposed to give you an out in which you take no damage, and logically you wouldn’t expect there to be any way to deduce a code unless you personally knew the puzzle’s creator and the way he or she thought. If anything, puzzles should be a lot harder (e.g., a simple 6-digit pin impossible to guess), but that makes the game inaccessible, which we don’t want. However, it’s reasonable that 1) you’re not going to be able to reason out the code except through trial and error; and 2) you’ll be punished when you get things wrong; however, 3) the initial punishment is easy in case the puzzle-maker himself makes a mistake or forgets which code goes in which order.

Remember when I said above that I’d provide more evidence that the players define success by how much damage they take? When we were finished with the third level, the players had had enough of my nonsense. They accosted me because the puzzle was unfair. The straw that broke the camel’s back? The third sequence was the Fibonacci sequence, which means when they got the first number in that series wrong, the plate lit up, and one player took a whopping . . . zero (0) points of damage. That’s right. A couple of them actually raised their voices and complained because one of them took 0 hit points of damage. After they were finished complaining, we continued. They pressed the one (per the instructions), then a two (which zapped them for one point of damage), and that’s all the damage one player took. Another player immediately deduced that 0, 1, and 1 were the start of the Fibonacci sequence, so for this sequence, a single 13th-level player with close to 100 hit points took exactly 2 points of damage, and that was unacceptable to all of them. I was so annoyed at this point that I didn’t tell the about the fourth level. I just said that they had reached their goal after the third puzzle (essentially, “Congratulations! You won D&D!”). The digit product series would have been a bit tough anyway, so frustrations aside, that was probably a good call.

Explain that any way you want. To me, it’s as simple as this: Some people just want to win D&D flawlessly, but that won’t always be possible if you immerse yourself in the game world. You always lose at least a little. I don’t get this at all, but I at least respect the fact that some of these players admit that immersion isn’t what they want from the game. Others claim they like immersion, but it seems like nothing but talk to me.

So Why Is This Important?

Why is this important to me? Why do I think this sort of thing would matter to far more players than it does if they ever gave it a try? Simply put because all mechanical bonuses and victories in the game are illusory. The only true successes or failures are story-based.

Let’s first look at the mechanics. Game designers, take note. As a DM, you may want to balance your encounter or campaign to be easy, even, or hard. I don’t care which; that’s not the point. The point is that you want a certain “balance,” which I’m using as a general term that doesn’t necessarily mean having a 50% chance of success. If a game is designed such that a 3rd-level PC is expected to have a +1 sword, then that disturbs your balance. It doesn’t do something cool like 4th edition frost brand weapon does. It simply increases your chances to hit by 5%. To keep the game balanced as you want it, the NPCs must have built within their mechanics a boost to defenses at 3rd-level (more or less). That means that the +1 bonus isn’t a bonus at all; it’s just keeping things consistent. Maybe you’re falling for that, but I’m not. I see it for the poorly-disguised illusion that it is. A frost brand weapon, on the other hand, allows (for example) a fighter to become a wizard for just a moment or two by giving the fighter a limited-use blast attack. It’s not enough to steal the wizard’s thunder, but enough to mix things up a bit. It’s a far more legitimate reward, though even that is still a bit illusory (just not as noticeably). It also allows the fighter to get a nice boost of damage against cold-vulnerable NPCs (if the game designers would ever create such creatures!), which mechanically is balanced by the fighter’s reduced damage against cold-resistant creatures. Thus, the reward is that the fighter has yet another avenue to get their moment to shine within the story. That’s much closer to a real reward.

The same can be said of encounters. If you’re trying to sneak by a campsite but get caught, you have an extra fight on your hands. Worse, if they’re able to sound the alarm to their allies, you have a single fight on your hands against, let’s say, 25 opponents. Levels don’t matter at that point. Even 25 kobolds 5 levels below you will likely be unstoppable. So, what does the DM do? He fudges it. He has the kobolds choose poor tactics by not all rushing the PCs, or he eliminates an encounter or two so that this extra encounter doesn’t upset the balance. Sure, the math allows some wiggle room here, but not a lot. Too many encounters, and you’re facing an inevitable TPK simply because you stepped on a dry twig. Because DMs don’t allow for a single twig to result in a TPK, the punishment is also illusory.

Something Real

So, what’s a real reward or punishment? A story-based one. Let’s say you’re approaching that same campfire, but the kobolds have prisoners. The prisoners are commoners who have no money, no information, and aren’t even important enough to have names. If you immediately charge, one of commoners gets their throat slit before you get there. If you’re sneaking but step on that dry twig, a few get their throats slit. Before you know it, you’ve got a lot of dead kobolds, but also a lot of dead commoners. That shouldn’t be seen as a victory despite the dead kobolds. Instead, the dead commoners should be your punishment for your failure. The more that die, the greater your failure. After all, aren’t you adventuring to save the world (assuming it’s not an evil campaign)? Unfortunately, commoners aren’t a concern to anyone unless they find enjoyment in immersing themselves in the game world. I haven’t met many of you that truly do, or perhaps most of you (like me) have resigned yourself to how things are done, so you don’t play that way despite it being your preference. I don’t know what’s in your heads; I can only guess based on your words and actions, and I’ve never heard anyone voice these specific concerns. Many adventure and game system writers don’t write that way either. Ergo, gaming has grated on me, and I no longer enjoy playing. The one time a year I do is at Winter Fantasy, but if I play too much, I get into a bad mood.

End Rant

That’s it. Rant over. I hope that explains my position. Please keep in mind that if all of this is falling on deaf ears, that’s fine. You don’t have to agree. None of you owe me a game played the way I want it played. If I’m not enjoying the game, I’ll find something else to do. We can still catch a movie together when the pandemic passes. That’d be fun. I rarely drink, so I can be the designated driver if necessary. 🙂

Side Note: 4th Edition D&D

In response to something someone said to me on Facebook, I’ll add that I love 4th edition. It’s my favorite edition of D&D. Despite the way I want to play, and even though it’s largely a combat simulator, I really enjoyed it. The math and logic were largely normalized, meaning you could focus on story above the math, which was easily dealt with as you went along. I wish more people took advantage of that. Instead, I think people prefer the convoluted, illusory math because they want that to be their focus. If true, that’s rather ironic considering the primary criticism of 4th edition is that it’s too rules heavy. But now I’m just picking fights. 🙂

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Ice Cream is for Suckers #dnd #rpg #gaming

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Sundays are now lazy days for me. Going forward, I’m just going to re-post other people’s work or just do something silly. Today, it’s something I saw on Facebook.


Sometimes, you just want to hack and slash, but fair warning: So does the DM.

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D&D Beyond and the Operatic Bard Class for #5e #DnD #RPG

An opera singer has created the Operatic Bard subclass for 5th Edition D&D, which she’s selling on the DM’s Guild for $1.99. This is interesting, but not necessarily in the way you think.

Journey To Ragnarok AvatarWhy would I pay one cent for this if I didn’t know whether or not it was useful to me?

On the other hand, if she published it without a paywall, then asked for money, she’d get next to nothing regardless of how good it is.

Unlike adventures, content like this will always be cursed by this paradox unless the content retains a value after being published as a PDF. Ergo, I believe the solution here is for WotC to facilitate incorporation of this material into their digital system, D&D Beyond. Beyond doesn’t allow us to create custom classes or builds because it requires more complicated coding behind the scenes. Therefore, the only way for it to be incorporated into Beyond is for WotC to do it themselves, which opens up the market for this kind of community-created content. She could sell the Operatic Bard for $1.99 and get the same cut that she currently gets for the PDF. Or more. Or less. The details don’t currently concern me.

The timing of this article is of particular interest to me because I just received the magnificent Journey to Ragnarok and have no way of incorporating the new class (Rune Master) into D&D Beyond, nor can I add the new builds for the barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, or wizard (yeah, pretty much all of them). My gaming has dropped off dramatically as of late. Long story short, it’s not worth the time investment to play. Being able to run Journey to Ragnarok with access to D&D Beyond would be quite an incentive to get me back into the fold. If not, then my interest will continue to wane. I don’t know if I’m in any way representative of a large group of people, but there’s some anecdotal evidence as to why this is a good idea.

Again, I don’t think this applies to NPC stat blocks because they’re easily added to Beyond by the end user. I also don’t think this applies to adventures because players are willing to take chances on adventures based on the synopsis and based on the fact that even a “bad” adventure can still be fun. This applies only to classes, builds, or anything else that end users can’t add to D&D Beyond themselves.

What do you think? Is WotC dropping the ball to some extent by not incorporating community-created classes and builds into D&D Beyond? Would you be more inclined to create classes and builds if you knew they could sell.

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New Living Campaign for #4e #Dungeons & #Dragons #DnD #RPG #GenCon CC: @Erik_Nowak @Luddite_Vic

Information has slowly been swirling through or local Washington, DC gaming community, and to a lesser extent, beyond that. The Gamers’ Syndicate has put synDCon on hold and is focusing its efforts instead on something that you can enjoy all year round: A living campaign for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Many 4e players feel that there’s still more to do with 4e, just as 3rd Edition players felt there was more to do with 3e, and we’re seeking to give 4e players that same opportunity that Paizo gave the 3e players with Pathfinder and, more to the point, Pathfinder Society.

Living Campaign

For those of you that don’t know what a “living campaign” is, I point you to the Wikipedia entry, because Wikipedia never lies. Actually, “living campaign” is often defined differently by different people. To me, the most important aspect of a living campaign is allowing all of us to meet each other. In other words, it grows the role-playing game community; however, there are other important aspects to it. It allows the players to shape the campaign world even though their playing pre-written adventures. That is, if the majority of players accomplished a task in one adventure, that fact will be tracked by the authors and shape how future adventures are written. What the players do matters, even though they’re sharing the experience with thousands of players worldwide.

The Campaign Setting

Every campaign needs a campaign setting: a world that needs protecting and sometimes saving. Some famous examples of Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings include Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms, Keith Baker’s Eberron, and Gary Gygax’s (everyone bow, right now!) Greyhawk. Our campaign setting hasn’t yet been named, but it’s one of our own design, spearheaded by the devious mind of Erik Nowak (who, if you recall, brought us Rotting Toes). Erik premiered the first two adventures (co-written by Dave Phillips) for this campaign setting at synDCon I and synDCon II. The setting is high fantasy, but not quite that high. Characters will use inherent bonuses so that acquiring magic items won’t be critical, and when they are acquired, they’ll be special.

We’re also introducing a mechanic for tracking a character’s reputation in the kingdom, and have a fairly ambitious plan in the works, but those are topics for later posts.

GenCon 2013

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be running the two introductory adventures at GenCon this year, which serves as a sneak preview of the campaign. However, we’re working on the first four adventures, so we’re on track for an official start not too far in the future. Stay tuned.

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#GenCon Indy, 2013! #gaming #games #RPG #TDA CC: @Luddite_Vic

For the first time, I’m going to GenCon and not working for Baldman Games. (You should work for them if you like Dungeons & Dragons. They give great rewards for running games.) I’m just going to play (though I’m running four slots). I’m honestly not sure how much gaming I’ll want to do. I might get bored and do something else. In any case, like all the other con-goers, I sat there at my computer just waiting for the countdown clock to strike zero at noon. I was lucky enough to be assigned #738 in the queue. Anything under 1,000 is lucky as all hell, and as a result, I got everything I wanted. This includes two puzzle-oriented True Dungeon adventures and a few role-playing games, none of which I’ve ever before played. Isn’t that what GenCon is supposed to be about: Trying new games? That’s my philosophy. I bought an extra ticket for each of the True Dungeon adventures, so I can help out a friend get into the game.

My current GenCon schedule is below. I have absolutely no complaints.

Wednesday: Fate Core (RPG1345241) at 8pm

Thursday: Dungeon World (RPG1341359) at 1pm, then the One Ring (RPG1343873) at 8pm.

Friday: True Dungeon (Lycan’s Afoot, TDA1348116) at 9:37am, then running the Gamers’ Syndicate new living campaign adventures at 1pm (RPG1343708) and 7pm (RPG1343710).

Saturday: True Dungeon (Golembane, TDA1348648) at 9:39am, then running the Gamers’ Syndicate new living campaign adventures at 1pm (RPG1343709) and 7pm (RPG1343711).

Sunday: A seminar on game design (SEM1346700) at 10am, then Far Trek RPG (RPG1342003) at noon.

This schedule lets me sleep in for the most part, and gives me plenty of time to roam the halls and keep myself fed. Let me know if you’re in any of my games.

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