Thursday, July 7, 2011, 9:59 AM
I noticed that wrecan included my humble Assassin poll in his Heroes of Blogging for June. So I decided to write up a true blog post to get at least one of my geeky thoughts to stop bouncing around in my head so much.
So there's been a lot of talk about how Mearl's Legends and Lore column foretells the imminent coming of D&D 5e. Arcane Springboard's excellent blog post lays it out pretty well, as well as getting a lot of things right, in my opinion. So I won't rehash it here.
Instead I want to complain about something else: the format of D&D. The latest generation of D&D has tried to embrace technology, with a mix of initial great failures of the Virtual Tabletop and later modest success with the Character Builder and Monster Builder. They're trying to dabble a little bit in the world of software, digital distribution, and video games. And they're certainly right to be thinking about such things. What frustrates me is how bass ackwards they've been going about it.
Remember what cell phones were like before the iPhone? They tried to dabble in the world of computers and mp3 players, with mixed success. But when someone designed a product from the ground-up to change the format of how phone, music, and computing services could be provided through the new medium of handheld devices, it was a huge success.
Traditional tabletop RPGs do something that video games do not: provide unlimited creative space, generally through the magic of a Game Master. We have the technology to provide a video game-like platform to provide this experience. I think such a product would blow the minds of the video game generation, providing them a quick and easy way to play games with unlimited replay-ability. I don't mean an MMO. The computer would only control as much as the game master wished. But if the game master wanted to instantly generate a random orcish town over that unexplored mountain? The platform has an button for that. (I almost wrote "there's an app for that" but it didn't quite fit.)
Sadly, I doubt very much if D&D will be the brand to expand into that territory. Their thinking seems to be still inside the same old box as every other tabletop RPG. The next iteration of D&D seems likely to be a clever streamlined version of D&D that incorporates lessons learned from 4e and brings back some elements from 1e. That's all fine and dandy, but you're still not going to reach new players in any appreciable numbers in the modern world.
Unfortunately, video games are backing into the freedom of tabletop RPGs somewhat haltingly as well. Newer games are all about making decisions matter, but the game makers can only support as many decisions and game paths as they think of in advance. So it seems unlikely that we will see a Elder Scrolls freeform RPG video game any time soon.
The video game Neverwinter is coming out soon. From this preview on G4, the creation engine that comes with the game is a marvelous thing to behold. The writer even goes so far as to suggest that Wizards should use this game in place of DDi. This will not happen for legal, technical, and inertia related reasons. But the point is a good one. This game shows how high-end video game technology could support a traditional role playing experience. So while this game is not the answer to my prayers, I'll still hope against hope that it opens some eyes and helps bring about the next big thing: iD&D.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 12:12 PM
Tuesday, May 31, 2011, 8:35 AM
Thursday, September 30, 2010, 8:02 AM
I'd like to share a brilliant idea I had that is a solution for a complex problem. Like many brilliant ideas, this won't seem completely revolutionary and has components of obvious thought. Its brilliance is in elegantly stating a goal to help us focus on solving the problem.
So the problem, simply stated, is to create characters that are tied into a D&D campaign so closely that they naturally determine the direction of the story and the adventures. The main corollary to this challenge is that the story is a good story and allows the DM to collaborate on the story with the players, rather than just present the setting and opportunities and sit back and watch. This is a sticky problem, as many brilliant DMs continue to grapple with this challenge. In fact, this all came to me while reading a blog post about his game problems and what he wants to do about it by the august Robert J. Schwalb: www.robertjschwalb.com/2010/09/one-campa...
The solution I propose is for the DM to present the players with the Problem Anchor. This is the essential problem for the game that the DM has in mind for his campaign. The DM would be wise to bounce the idea, tone, and other planned elements off of the players before settling on it, but that's the subject for another post.
The important thing is to eventually settle on a simple and vague campaign Problem, and the players will then create characters with that problem in mind. The simple and vague concept will be fleshed out and become more detailed as the characters are created, background are made, and adventures are undertaken. Here are some examples:
Dominion of the Dragon Lords (Actual campaign) - The dragonborn empire has enslaved the world, throwing down all opposing civilizations, and all of their grandeur has been lost to the mists of time. The players further chose to set their game in an urban setting, where each character has for various reasons just joined a fledgling underground rebellion against the local dragonborn king. The players design characters with backgrounds that motivate them to band together with like-minded rebels to throw off the yoke of oppression, and some of their backgrounds relate to each other, though it isn't required.
An example character is a barbarian human from the wild lands whose people have been raided and preyed upon by the Dragon Lords for ages. The character vows to travel into the lands of their enemies and not return until the Dragon Lords have been thrown down and their people can live in peace.
The Kingdom and the Faeries - "The Kingdom" is under a rulership that is confused and disputed. Fear and superstition run rampant throughout the kingdom, with many blaming evil faeries for their ills. Meanwhile, on the other side of the veil, the fey despair that their magic and realm are fading away. Some blame human destruction of nature, but others look to the humans as their only hope to prevent their gradual decline. The players can choose to have characters from either side of the veil, and will find their paths crossing in the course of the very first adventure as they weave their own fairy tale and try to save both of their worlds.
An example character is a woodcutter's daughter who stumbles across a faerie ceremony on midsummer's eve, inadvertently fulfilling a prophecy and suddenly pursued by the witches of winter for reasons she can't understand.
A New Darkness in Middle Earth - A hundred years have passed since the defeat of Sauron. Agents are at work throughout Middle Earth, using a new strange magic to revive and support old evils thought banished from the fair lands of Middle Earth. Elfs and other powers are appearing from out the west with mysterious purposes of their own. The players choose what sort of characters might be affected by or looking into the strange doings. Perhaps they are agents of the High King, sent to contact any newcomers from the west, or perhaps they are innocents from The Shire who are approached by an enigmatic stranger who needs some help on a mysterious quest.
An example character is the half elven son of the king, come to prove himself against the wishes of his friends and family and to try to discover more about the elven half of his ancestry.
Now, most campaigns have some sort of epic challenge that the players will eventually be drawn into by virtue of their having proven themselves on a bunch of lower level quests. The difference with this model is that there's no need for artificial transitions like this; the characters are involved with the story from the beginning. In fact, the players help to construct the story by virtue of which characters they choose to play and WHAT they want to do about the Problem Anchor. This will also tie the characters much more naturally to each other than having been the only PCs hanging out in that particular tavern at the time.
Saturday, June 12, 2010, 6:55 AM
What makes us excited about role playing? At some level, we are swept up in the story. If not, we'd be happy playing chess. No, we love to get excited about all the cool stuff that our characters can do, and the stuff they can get. We love the places we can go and the feats we can accomplish. Why does all of that stuff seem so cool? Because of the stories!
The movies, books, and childhood stories drive our imagination to want to take part in all of that cool stuff. It's a shame that so many are content to run characters that have so little in the way of story to them. A hero that doesn't have a good story isn't much of a hero at all. Those heroes are DOIN IT WRONG.
See, if you are a fan of modern fantasy fiction such as Lord of the Rings (the prototype) and Star Wars, there's a good chance you'd love to be the main character in such a story. Yet so many of us ruin our own fun by making non-heroic characters destined to play supporting roles no matter how powerful we become. The way I see it, there are three powerful forces keeping us from playing in true heroic style. These are game incentives pointing the wrong way, game traditions keeping us stuck in the past, and written adventures giving poor examples.
First off, the D&D game and games of its ilk doesn't actually give fantastic incentives to be heroic. Quite the contrary, many of us have felt the call of the wild munchkin deep within our souls, particularly in our formative role playing careers. Folks like Rob Donoghue who have kindly shared their "RPG DNA" provide an interesting insight. Here we can see that Rob's young imaginings and inspirations lead him to make characters named Aragorn and invent a Jedi class. But when he actually started playing, his group (just like mine) made all of the classic blunders like stealing from one another and suicide in the name of new cooler characters (they probably even got involved in a land war in Asia!). Its important to note that they still always had fun, as did most of us. My point, as always, is to question if the fun is maximized.
D&D and its close relatives are rules frameworks for the practical and violent part of role playing. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, it tends to focus our attention on those aspects of role playings and away from the story. Thus when we see a new +1 mace, we all fight over it. But we can't muster the energy to write a back story most of the time, much less to anything to bring back story into play. So rules tend to guide our attention in this way. There are, in fact, other RPGs that provide mechanics to encourage story such as the wonderful new Dresden Files RPG. While I certainly encourage to check out such games, I guarantee its not necessary to abandon D&D to have a good story.
The second force keeping our characters from being heroic is the tradition of the D&D game that harkens back to the original rules and their creators. For folks that started with 2E, its useful to read fun columns like D&D Alumni to learn what the game was originally like. If you look into the influences of this early game, you'll find that Robert Howard's Conan stories were a closer fit to the desired flavor of the game than Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. These are stories of fighting monsters and seeking treasure with the main motivation of lusting for battle and wealth.
There's nothing wrong with such stories or with emulating them, of course. But for those of us who dream of creating heroes, this tradition will steer you down the wrong path. The tradition of dungeon crawling, treasure hording, and monster fighting for fight's sake lives on in today's game in many ways. Gamers who have been playing for a while are used to this mode. Adventures have always been written to cater to this play style. Adventure paths are designed with little or no connection imagined between the overarching story and the characters trying to save the day.
That leads me to the third and final force keeping us from realizing our heroic potential: written adventures. Whether written adventures are used as a whole, just in sections, or for inspiration written adventures have a significant impact on our games and our gaming psyche. And for many reasons, some more understandable than others, written adventures rarely do anything other than reinforce the fight-and-loot traditions of the game. But that will have to wait for my next entry, because D&D adventure writers are most certainly DOIN IN WRONG. I'll also give some suggestions about how a group can create a more heroic game and finally begin to take a starring role in a world that was ostensibly created just for them.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010, 8:47 AM
Before anyone gets mad, let me also add that you're doing it right as well. I've often heard something along the lines of, "as long as you're having fun there's nothing wrong with the way you play your RPG." Nonsense, I say. If you're having fun, that just means you're doing SOMETHING right. There is always room for improvement... or in other words, you're doing it wrong.
If there's one thing I learned from 7 years of college classes about economics it is that we know a lot of ways to screw an economy up. To keep things humming along without any trouble... we're still trying to figure that one out. But the noble calling of the economist is to figure out what went wrong, write it down on a post-it note or something and try to remember not to do it again. Yet despite all of the epic failures of society's pursuit of prosperity, we haven't all perished! Yay, we're doing something right, so we should just stop trying to improve right?
What I'm saying here is: some success does not mean there isn't a better way. In economics terms, none of us are achieving optimal allocation of fun at the gaming table. But the best of us are wise enough to acknowledge that fact and continue to strive to get closer to that illusive optimal state of sublime role playing fun. There are a few wonderful examples of ways we can all work to have a better game in the rich and fertile minds of some smart folks sharing their wisdom online.
One of my favorites is The 4 Stages of RPG Group Development from Critical Hits. I'd wager that any group that takes an honest look at their own dynamic will find themselves somewhere in these stages. And if your group spends a lot of time at the top tier, you are lucky indeed. Most of us have that back and forth of good sessions and bad, and many accept it as the way things are. "At least we have SOME fun", we tell ourselves. Well I'm telling you: UR DOIN IT WRONG.
So challenge yourselves, and maybe you'll find that those bad sessions become fewer and farther between. Then you'll still be doin in wrong... but not quite so much.
While there are a slew of wonderful ideas of how to avoid the wrong doin's, I'd like to try to single out a few that don't get as much attention. Next time I'll talk about D&D and heroism. Because I've got news for all you supposed D&D heroes out there: UR DOIN IT WRONG.