Tuesday, November 17, 2009, 2:29 PM
Besides being a developer, an occasional designer, a D&Di columnist, and a sometimes miniature painter, I'm also one of the members of the D&D update team.
Roughly once a week I sit in a room with Greg Bilsland and Charles Arnett where we go over pages and pages of potential updates to the game. It usually starts with Greg handing out a long list of paper, churns into all of us going over books and twisting our heads around issues both simple and sublime, and ends in me going on some frenzied (and often humorous, if I do say so myself) tangent about something that’s bugs me about our game.
Ultimately we find solutions. Some questions go back to development; sometimes taking up large chunks of our weekly meeting or spinning off into a meeting of its own. Final decisions are made, and then compiled into the update document that goes on to Andy Collins, the Development and Editing Manager. He gets feedback from key members of the staff (including the eagle-eyed editor Jeremy Crawford, and development lead Stephen Schubert), sometimes asks us why we came up with some solutions and not others, and from time to time challenge us to create a better solution than the one we presented.
At the end of this process, a document gets sent to the data team, who fix files and tweak programming, and update documents are laid out and put up on the website for those not using the character builder or that don’t have access to D&Di.
And this is how we fix issues in D&D.
The current updates, that went live today, were months in the making. We had roughly 70% of the updates complete prior to Gen Con this year, but had to make strategic decisions on which ones to release because of scheduling constraints, so we picked the ones that would likely affect Gen Con play the most and left the rest for today.
I’m very happy to see that folks on the 4e optimization board not only understand the need for many of the fixes, but approve of them. Many are even rejoicing over them. It’s always our goal to make D&D better. That’s what ever single one of us who work in R&D (and those freelancers that work outside these cubes) strives to do each and every day. I hope many of you appreciate that, as much as we appreciate your love and devotion to the greatest game in existence (and I don’t think that’s hyperbole BTW).
Well, see you, I am off to another update meeting!
Monday, November 16, 2009, 2:06 PM
I was excited to see that today's preview of Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos was of the "reasoning with slaad" skill challenge I designed for the book. I was even happier to see the fantastic reaction it was getting on our message board and a number of fan sites around the Web.
To be honest, when the skill challenge was turned over to Ari, the lead designer of the book, I noted that some of the failure effects may be a bit much, but I thought they were. Luckily he agreed with me.
When the book was in development, I stayed quiet while the other developers critiqued the skill challenge. (It's always hard to be in development meetings involving your own design. I'm a strong believer of keeping my mouth shut, listing to the critique, and trying as hard as I can to not become defensive about my work. Sometimes I'm even successful.) I was afraid that the table and all its wacky failure effects would soon be trimmed, simplified, or be redesigned to look more like your standard skill challenge failure effects. I was happy when the developers thought it was fun, and decided to keep it.
Now I am thrilled that folks are having at least as much fun reading it (and hopefully have a lot of fun running it) as I had designing it. I think people will be pleased with this book. I may be biased, but I think there's a lot of fun in it.
Sunday, November 8, 2009, 9:19 AM
Last time I talked about some of my history playing D&D with miniatures throughout the editions. I thought I would follow up that blog with showing off some of my favorite miniatures that I own or hope to own. I want to do this on a weekly basis, thus the title. (Yes, I have that many miniatures and I am always acquiring and painting more.)
Some of the photos are a tad blurry. I'm still working on perfecting my miniatures photography. As I go on with this, I'm sure I'll get better.
I'll start off with a mini I just painted last week. I call him "Tim", since he looks a lot like the "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" character. A Reaper Miniature sculpted by Tim (chuckle) Prow, Mr. Prow named him Leisynn "The Twisted." I'm looking forward to making this fella a despicable bad guy in some adventure I run down the road. I'm sure I'll not name that villain Tim or even Leisynn, but something tells me Monty Python quoting will erupt around the table when he come from out of the minis box anyway.
"Look at the Bones!"
If I really wanted to continue with the Monty Python theme, maybe I would make Tim a necromancer and team him up with this mini. A bone swarm from Privateer Press's Iron Kingdoms line, this mini is just pure awesome. I recently bought two more of of these that I hope to paint up pretty soon. Hopefully in time so that the trio can team up with Tim for some nasty PC grinding fun!
"And Now For Something Completely Different"
My next mini was painted up to serves as Frenoss, the Dragonborn ambassador of Arkhosia in my Days of Long Shadows campaign (Tan Group). Played by Aaron, Frenoss is intensely curious, always coming up with strange epiphanies in his distinctive grumbling monotone, and, well, not so bright (unlike Aaron, who's very bright). I like this Reaper figure, even if it has a tail, because I think it illustrates how massive and foreign dragonborn are.
"I'm A Lumber Jack, and I Don't Care"
This duel wielding minotaur is from Rackham. A juggernaut of primal power, if this guy were Medium, he would be perfect for a minotaur barbarian PC using the new two-weapon build in Primal Power. I guess I'll just have to be content using him as a bad guy.
No More Monty Python!
When this pile of pewter talks, you'd better listen. This hill giant miniature, produced by Wizards back when we made metal miniatures, is one of my favorites. It is heavy, even though it was sculpted in parts to be somewhat hollow...throw it across the room and you'll hurt whatever it lands on. Many folks I've talked to are not happy with the sculpt--it just doesn't fit their version of a hill giant--but I like its brutish but fairy tale classic look.
For the Future
This is a miniature that isn't out yet, but I think I'm going to have to pick it up. Part of the new Games Workshop Skaven line, It would make a great solo "monster" in a siege encounter I want to write. This plastic set is just pure awesome in the way that GW can make plastic sets pure awesome. (Since it's not even out yet, neither the photo nor the paint job are mine - it's from this month's White Dwarf magazine, #358!).
An Old Friend
This miniature is one of my prized possessions. From Otherworld Miniatures (a small micro-mini producer in England), this resin miniature should be recognizable to just about every D&D fan. It's huge, well sculpted, and fantastic, It even comes with multiple gemstone eyes in a variety of colors. My grognard tendencies show though with my choice of classic red gemstones.
Friday, November 6, 2009, 2:55 PM
A couple weeks ago when the D&D Microsoft Surface proof of concept video hit the intertwebs just about every person I've ever played D&D with came out of the Facebook or Twitter woodwork to tell me about it. It's exciting stuff, and something that I had hoped would happen for a long time. But as the messages, questions, and comments were coming in, I was struck by one particular friend, named Jay, and his reaction to it.
He wrote: "I wonder if the overt visualization takes some of the "magic" away though. But then I was never a miniatures player, just pencil and paper, so I'm not used to the idea of props."
I found this sentiment a tad strange. Jay had played in my game, back in 1990. He wasn't one of the main players, though, he was a friend of a friend who joined just before I moved from Santa Fe to Denver, but he had to remember that we used minis, right? Obviously not.
Jay's reaction was not an anomaly. At about the same time there were a number of threads on various RPG message boards that were talking about the dominance of miniatures play in 4e and 3e, and how that didn't exist in earlier version of the game. I found this strange because miniatures have almost always been a part of my D&D experience.
My very first game, there were a few minis on the table, and they were arranged in a haphazard way in order to show relative position. We didn't move them on a board or a grid, but they were used as a visual aid. I was told by the Dungeon Master, "there are better ways to use miniatures, but I don't have enough or the tools yet...but I'm going to get them."
Keep in mind that this was the early 80s. It was hard to find dice, let alone miniatures, or anything approaching Dwarven Forge, a Battlemat, or Dungeon Tiles in the local game store; but they did exist. If you don't blink you'll spot such a set up in the movie E.T. (the novelization of the movie called out the game by name, and had a section where Elliot made an E.T. magic user character, if I remember correctly).
How do I know they exited? I remember them. There's also proof in Dragon magazine.
Here at Wizards we have something called the free table. As the name suggests, it's a place where you can dump your crap and someone else can take it, for free. Lucky for most of us, other people's crap is often gaming treasure. Somewhat who used to work for Wizards sent in a bunch of old gaming stuff he didn't want anymore via a mutual friend. I got early dibs. Among the treasures was Dragon #72 from April 1983. Released just a couple of months before I started subscribing to Dragon magazine; it was one of those issues that I didn't have a hard copy of. One of the infamous April fools issues, it featured the "Valley Elf" song (to the tune of Moon Unit Zappa's "Valley Girl"), the Duh Jock class, and few spells for everyone (including my favorite and often used, Bigby's insulting hand). It also included something that I had forgotten about and that wasn't an April Fool's joke at all-Dungeon Floor Modules from Kabal Gaming Systems.
The ad for KGS's Dungeon Floor Modules from Dungeon #74 page 64
For just $5.00 (about $11.00 in today's money), you could get 20 sheets of dungeons, one sided, on "sturdy" card stock. Wow, that seemed expensive. The same year, I could buy "Dungeon Floorplans 3" from Games Workshop (this was when GW was still making stuff for fantasy RPGs, not their own games) for a few more dollars. Both were hard to find, were usually acquired by mail-order, which increased their price. Sometimes, like my order for the Kabal Gaming System, didn't show up at all. Maybe it was an April Fool's joke after all.
Waiting or searching for the right tools to use miniatures for D&D was frustrating at times. But these grid tiles and tools were perfect for the positioning rules that were in the 1e Dungeon Master Guide (which I had already simplified into a much more usable mess).
A corner of 1e DMG page 69
Frustrated, somewhat broke, I found my savior in an unlikely place-a book that a well-meaning but rather clueless relative sent me for Christmas.
When you're a D&D geek, you can be hard to buy for come the holidays. Everything in D&D is very specific. Miniatures have specific sizes (and morphologies), there was AD&D and D&D (and if you played AD&D there were few D&D products that interested you), not to mention the number of D&D clone games on the market ("you didn't want Tunnels & Trolls, I thought that's what you played, honey"). Lucky for those relatives aware of their uninitiated status, there were also a number of books in the mass market that endeavored to explained D&D and other roleplaying games. On the downside, those relatives usually didn't bother reading those books; they would just send their D&D geeks those books for Christmas. Since most of these books were geared toward getting folks to understand the hobby not toward the already initiated, they were often a boring read.
The cover of my well-loved copy of Holmes's Book
This was not true for a book simply titled Fantasy Role Playing Games by J. Eric Holmes, M.D. Released in 1981, I think the book had already reached the early 80s version of half-price book status by the time I unwrapped it under the shade of an artificial Christmas tree. I remember opening it, grumbling something about aunt so-n-so being useless, and hoisting it to the side. I forgot about it until one particularly long and boring the following spring break when my D&D game fell through (damn parents and their love for outdoor activities!) With nothing else to do but read the Elric saga for the 10th time, I instead sat down and read the Holmes book. In my opinion the books is far and away the best of those early 80s "what the heck is this crap" books. Not only because it does a fine job at its primary goal, but it also has a lot interesting stuff for the initiated.
For instance Holmes presages wizard at-will powers, has some interesting tidbits on early RPG game design history, and has a good chapter on miniatures as well as a number of photos from his game. While the book features some great black and white shots of good (for the time) miniatures dioramas, what I was impressed with was Holmes's game set up.
From the dedication page of Holmes's Book. Holmes is the dude with the 70's mustache and great head of gray hair. Notice the boxes of Marvel comics in the background, and the Rubik's Cube in front of the woman.
He had a table with a chalkboard surface! I was instantly jealous, and had to figure out how to get one. His secret was let loose somewhere in the book. He had spray painted a table with chalk board paint! Heck, I wasn't even aware such a paint existed, but I was instantly on the hunt for as many cans as I would need to turn the dinning room table into the ultimate game table.
My parents were not nearly so excited.
What ensued was a storyline that could have been right out of "Freaks and Geeks" if it weren't so obscure. I pleaded and pouted and my parents desperately searched for ways to appease me without giving over the dinning room table to a chalkboard surface. Their final solution was simple enough, "why don't you just buy a chalk board and lie it on the table." While it didn't seem nearly as cool as having a whole table's surface as a chalk board, I had to admit it was a fine solution. And that's what I did.
For years, until I bought my Chessex Battlemat in the late 90s, that chalkboard, speckled with dots of white acrylic paint at each intersection of the grid, served as my battle ground. I used it exclusively through 1e where it became the Temple of Elemental Evil, the Tome of Horrors, and Castle Ravenloft. In second edition it illustrated the twists and turns of Undermountain and the Waterdeep sewers (and my friend Jay, who was never a miniatures guy adventured in both of those locales on that very chalk board).
While it is possible to play D&D without miniatures, and I don't begrudge anyone who doesn't use them, I will point out that from its start D&D has been a game "playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures." In the old days, the only reason why we would play without them was because we didn't have enough of them or the tools to use them well.
I don't have that problem anymore.
My experience is the game is better for having miniatures and all those other toys. One day, those miniature figures may be replaced with pixels playing on a Microsoft Surface, but I hope not. I like the fact that the proof of concept plays with PC miniatures, and I hope any final version will play with monster minis too. I personally believe that miniatures add a fine tactile element that helps focus game play and supplements imagination, not stifles it.
Long live miniatures in D&D.
Thursday, September 3, 2009, 10:07 PM
I started playing D&D in 1981 with 1st Edition AD&D. This was a time when you bought the D&D Basic Set for two things: dice and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The rules in the D&D Basic Set--to our young minds--were at best an unnecessary simplification and at worst in error. Elf is not a class, it's a race! Class was obviously synonymous with profession. Law and Chaos were not the proper sole poles for alignment (we were not yet influenced by Moorcock, and even after we were the good and evil debate raged). For some reason the basic game just refused to understand those things. Add to those facts that the character sheets, weapon tables, and spell lists (even considering that it was only levels 1 - 3) had a lot to be desired. The only time I ever saw someone prefer the D&D Basic Set, was when weasely little Joey Rivera decided that he would rather use the magic missile spell from the Basic Set because he lost his d4s. Rolling our collective eyes we all figured he probably "lost" them at the bottom of his sock drawer and let him borrow our d4s to cast magic missile correctly.
No, AD&D was where it was at, and we all knew it. I stated playing the game just before it was picked up by, what we could call today, the mass market. For a while in the 80s you could buy D&D and AD&D in Sears, JC Penney, and a good number of toy stores, but when I first discovered the game, D&D material was hard won and Dragon magazine might of well have been a rumor. There were many photocopies of adventures of somewhat splotchy quality from the day's anti-piracy tech of printing maps in light blue ink, but you only put up with those until you found the real thing at the odd hobby store, book store, or random craft store that stocked the game. Players Handbooks got loaned out quite a bit by the kid who had it. With that loan, you'd create a bunch of characters, before the owner would call back the favor.
Books were not only hard won, they were pretty expensive, at least to us young'ns. Keep in mind back in my day (you frigg'n whippersnappers) school lunch cost about 30 cents. Mowing the lawn got you a buck or two tops, and D&D character sheets, one of the cheapest D&D products out there, cost about $4.00. I think I scrapped and saved up for at least a good two weeks before I got my first chance to visit a game store in nearby San Francisco and got the opportunity to actually buy some of my own D&D books. I needed dice. I knew I didn't have enough to buy a Player's Handbook. With my relative chump change, my choices were limited. Dice, check. Official D&D dice no less, with the crayon and everything! After that I could either buy some character sheets and have some change, or pick up G1-3 Against the Giants, the adventure that introduced me to the game and that I was still playing. I could buy another adventure with exotic names I didn't yet recognize that graced that round-robin magazine holder in a pretty ratty looking game store, but I was nervous about the unknown. Having not yet caught the DM bug (and wondering if it was cheating to buy the adventure I was playing), I bought the character sheets, and dreamed of making a bard. Yeah, that's right I said a bard. I'll get to that some other time.
To be honest, after I was done rolling up my first few characters with a borrowed Player's Handbook, the joy of my new purchase faded, and I began regretting my decision. I didn't feel like I learned anything more about D&D, and I desperately wanted more. I wanted to learn about the giants we fought. What motivated them? What other treasures did they carry in their numerous bags and pouches? I need to find out, damn it.
Within a week, I had my chance. This guy at school, Luke, found out I had started playing D&D. Not interested in such a strange an arcane time waster, Luke did have a D&D books that his older brother gave him before taking off for college. He would sell it to me for a dollar. I played it cool, and told him I would take a look at what he had, but already my heart was racing. He pulled out a duo-tone adventure: the old stand-alone G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King. It was the first time I saw one of the already old duo-tone adventures, so I wasn't sure. I was playing a fighter in the midst of assaulting Nosanra's steading. I knew the Hall of the Fire Giant King was part of the same series, so I wasn't afraid that somehow I had stumbled on a counterfeit or anything, it was just thinner, seemingly lesser, different.
Luke, sensing my trepidation, let me take it home to read. That evening I fell in love. With the turn of each page I imagined a group of adventurers delving through the halls of Muspelheim; winding their way through the arsenal; dealing the imperious Queen Frumpy (great encounter, crappy name); running into the dwarf renegade Obmi; rescuing the lovely, but treacherous, unnamed thief chained in King Ironbelly's dungeon; all of this leading up to the the machinations of the true enemies--Eclavdra and the drow. All my questions were answered and more. It was reading that adventure that my fate as a Dungeon Master was sealed.
The next day, I gave Luke that dollar in change gladly, actually giddy about the transaction, and went without lunch for the rest of the week.
It turns out Luke's brother didn't exactly give him the adventure. The jerk was selling off stuff without his brother's knowledge. A week later, Luke was found out, grounded, interrogated, and names and actions were spilled. I got my money back, but had to give back the adventure. I picked up the copy of the one I currently own (pictured above) at a gaming convention in Northern Virginia while I was in High School. Still, every time I take it out of its protective plastic bag and flip though it, it takes me back to that fateful night so many years ago.
Christ, I'm a dork.
Friday, August 28, 2009, 5:36 PM
The last year or so has seen the release of some great games of all stripes. D&D 4th Edition (I'm extremely biased), Pathfinder (giving props to my friends at Paizo), Warhammer 40,000 5th Edition, Pandemic, Dominion, Left 4 Dead, the WoW Miniatures Game have all been first rate releases, in my mind. And it doesn't seem like this trend of great games is slowing down any time soon. Here're some of upcoming games I'm pretty excited about.
Space Hulk 3rd Edition (Games Workshop): I've never owned an edition of this game, but played the heck out of my buddies' copies. I've already put down the $100 for this gorgeous edition. My copy of this month's White Dwarf magazine has already sold two more of these babies around the office, and I think my friend Jefferson will finally cave this weekend and preorder his copy. It's a limited release that drops of September 5th.
The Beatles Rockband (Harmonix): If any of you say that you don't like the Beatles, you're lying-not just to me, but also to yourselves. I'm all about the metal, but the Beatles still leaves me weak in the knees for very primal reasons. Fuse it with Rockband, which may must be the most accessible roleplaying game in history (even if its mechanics are a glorified version of the old Simon game from the 80s), and you have pure gold. The only thing that would make this game suck is if Ringo flew out of the screen to stab my mom in the neck with his drumsticks (that wacky Ringo!).
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 3rd Edition (Fantasy Flight): I almost hesitate to put this on my list. To be honest I'm becoming less and less excited about this thing the more I read about it. When this game originally hit in the 80s it had a number of intriguing mechanics and rules idea that stewed your character in a goulash of its own gore and aborted game sessions, waiting for a sweet spot of that damn percentile core mechanic curve that would never come. The second edition Green Ronin released in conjunction with the now defunct Black Industries was a Band-Aid on a patient that needs serious surgery. At first this $100 boxed set (Oh, am I going to spend some green this year) seemed like a crucial breath of fresh air, but the more I read the more I wonder if it really is the same beaten and battered game covered up with flashy Fantasy Flight game pieces. I hope not.
Friday, August 28, 2009, 11:11 AM
Last week I was wandering the wilds of Oregon (most of my time spent where the state meets the Pacific). During my travels, I got a chance to explore labyrinthine bookstore known as Powells City of Books, in Portland. In a far-flung corner of that place I found a treasure title Schott's Sporting Gaming & Idling Miscellany. Some of you may be familiar with this book, or other Schott's offerings, but I wasn't. It's a hoot. I'll share an example (this is not made up).
Dwyle Flunking is thought to have originated in the C8th at the court of King Offa of Mercia, probably descending from Spile Throshing (see p. 135). Required for the 'sport' are: a bucket of ale; and accordion; a selection of agricultural attire (famers' jerkins, straw hats, etc.); a rag drenched in ale (the dwyle); and a stick to fling the dwyle (the swadger). Two teams of 12 contest the game, one bats while the other fields. The batsmen take their positions with the swadger, while the fielding team links hands in a circle around him and dances in an easterly direction to the accompaniment of the accordion player. When the music stops, the batsman flings his dwyle at the fielders, scoring 3 runs for a face hit, 2 for a torso hit, and 1 for a limb hit. They that have the most points after two innings are the winners." (page 81)
If you are looking for irreverent (albeit dry) fun about sporting, gaming, and idling (all miscellany) you may want to check it out. It'll at least put a smile on your face for an afternoon or two.