Monthly Archives: May 2010

Monday Monday

I had almost forgotten I should post today. As such, expect randomness.

Three day weekend and I’m off on the road, posting once again through blogpress on the iPad. Excepting the fact that it can’t do formatting (which I miss for my footnotes) this is actually surprisingly robust (though the dedicated WordPress software seems a bit stronger), So that said, Monday will be my fifth day on the road, and I haven’t really missed my laptop at all. The only thing I want it for is to review the photographs I’ve taken, but that’s not really a pressing concern. It can easily wait until I’m home at my desk.

That said, it has hardly been a fair test. Because I’ve been visiting family, the amount of time I’d WANT to spend on a computer has been pretty minimal. That means that while I’ve consumed (read comments and email, mostly) I have not really had time to sit down and produce, so comments (some substantial and interesting) and emails (ditto) have gone unanswered. That’s a shame, but it’s not something I can really blame on the Ipad.

The external keyboard setup is mostly proving superior to toting around a laptop excepting in a few situations. So long as there’s a work surface, it rocks, but for more awkward positions (like in bed) it’s rough.

Connectivity’s been a bit of an issue, but it’s Vermont, and it’s been equally problematic on my Verizon phone, so no points lost there.

As a random aside, this is the first long trip we’ve taken with NO physical maps in the car, depending entirely on my droid or the ipad for maps. It was good we had redundancy, but it turned out we could rely on one or the other wherever we went, even up into the mountains or out on the Champlain islands.

As with all trips to Vermont, it was marred by the sheer volume of things that I didn’t get to go see or do, but it was better than usual. If you’re in Burlington, the aquarium on the waterfront (which was new to me) is a fantastic place to take a kid. Jamie had an absolute blast, pointing at the glass and loudly declaring “Ish! Ish!”

Cutting Grass and Pruning Daisies

I’m on the road and trying out the blogging software on my ipad – it seems functional if unexciting, but I’ll keep it brief today if only to avoid surprises.

I want to bring up one last point on the topic of balance, possibly the most important point. A lot of the behaviors I’ve mentioned as being unbalancing are not necessarily bad behaviors in their own right. They only become problematic when only one person engages in them.

In a system that rests on mechanical balance, having one character who is too badass is a problem, but having EVERYONE be crazy badass is a feature. Having one character who has so many interesting plot hooks and background elements that they constantly drive play can get awkward. If everyone has plot hooks that drive play, that’s a good thing.[1]

There is an instinct when we see something out of place (and most things that mess with balance seem out of place) to knock it back into line. Things that stick out too far get lopped off. As a generalization, this is a bit of tricky business – sometimes the outlier is really a problem[2] – but sometimes its where things are potentially exceptional.

So with that in mind, the next time you see an unbalanced behavior in a game or at your table, ask yourself whether that behavior is bad on its own rights. If it’s a behavior you’d like to see more of from your players, then look at the imbalance as an opportunity to help the rest of your group reap the same benefits.

Obviously, this is a tricky line to watch. Communicating to your players i important, but you don’t want to give them the sense that they suck and you’re trying to fix them. That suggests a show-don’t-tell approach, of illustrating the benefits of the imbalanced behaviors, but that runs the risk of just looking like favoritism.

I’d suggest treating your players like they’re *already* doing what you’re looking for, and just forgetting to mention it. Ask them questions and treat them like they’re already awesome, and you’ll be surprised just how quickly they prove you right.

1- This is, curiously, why I consider phased character creation to be a balancing mechanism. By tying everyone’s stories together, you make it impossible for any one story to take off without taking everyone else along with.

2 – Razzin-Frazzin Kender

Balance and Kender

Is there really a problem out there of people saying “I’d really like to play a less powerful character than the rest of the group, but gosh darn it the rules won’t let me”? Is this something that comes up so often that it’s an issue? Because I have to admit I’ve never really encountered this problem, except in a very specific sort of way.

I don’t think I’m the outlier here, and with that in mind, I’m really leery of the idea of using the idea that people want to play less capable characters as the basis for discarding the entire idea of balance. It feels like the wedge point of a crowbar sort of argument, setting you up so that once you agree balance isn’t important for the inevitable “So you won’t mind if…” that gives the GM’s girlfriend a demigod to play.

In my reality at least, balance issues come up because of one of two things (which are in some ways the same thing) – a player wants his character to be more powerful, or he wants him to be more unique.

More powerful is actually the easy one to solve, since it is usually a function of players who have spent too much time playing games where you start out as a sack of suck. Very few modern games support that model anymore, and even the worst offenders of the past (D&D and White Wolf) have moved beyond it[1]. Most games allow for a starting character to be capable enough to satisfy most itches.

You’ll occasionally bump your nose up against certain absolutist ideas like “I want to be the best swordsman in the world.” Some systems support this out of the box, others do so with minimal tweaking, others are just going to jam up on it (4e, for example, simply cannot usefully support that concept). When you encounter an idea like this expressed clearly, it’s usually pretty easy to work with, so long as you choose the right tool.

But all in all? Power is easy. Uniqueness is much more complicated.

Right off the bat, uniqueness can be hard to spot because it can look like a grab for power. A player looking to take powers that are not normally available, or mixing inappropriate magics or the like may seem to be trying to grab power[2] but that’s not always the case. In many cases, a player will try to pick something pretty far outside the box of playability for other reasons. Some players just gravitate towards a type, and try to shoehorn it into everything. Others have particular ideas about creativity they’re expressing in this way. Others want their character to stand out in some way, and are going for uniqueness.

This is where the most subtle challenge to the very idea of game balance can really come to bear. Some of these concerns are easily addressed: players who want their character to be unique have often faced the same bad experiences as the people who have dealt with weenie characters. Again, modern games tend to do a better job of putting characters into the spotlight, so there should be less need to get attention through extreme measures.

It’s the other motives that are more problematic, because they speak to player motivation, and as noted yesterday, balance is REALLY all about the players and their level of engagement. The player who wants the weird, far out thing is probably excited about it, and excitement is powerful currency, but it’s how we end up with Kender.

Kender, for those unfamiliar, are the halflings of the Dragonlance setting. In older editions, they’re a mechanical nightmare and more problematically are all fearless kleptomaniacs. This means that when there’s one in your group, you can expect them to promptly grab the spotlight and keep it permanently affixed to themselves. Try to focus on someone else? All the Kender needs to do is steal something from a party ember or do something stupidly reckless and it’s back where it belongs.

Now, it’s easy to say that the kender issue is a social one, and needs to be addressed by speaking to the the player. That’s certainly part of the issue, but that lets the game itself off a little bit too easy. If the game is going to leave kerosene and fireworks on the table, focusing entirely on the player’s matchbook solves only half the problem.

And that’s where this comes back to that elusive issue of game balance. One other reason to keep a game balanced is to keep any one player from hijacking the game (or at least to help give them less of a shield to hide behind when called out on that behavior). And that’s where we get into some interesting social territory. The character with the greatest ability to hijack the game is rarely the most powerful one (unless the power discrepancy is truly huge) and may even be the weakest one[3] if balance is purely mechanical[4]. Note that while the kender has some mechanical issues, it’s real problems are separate form that. A mechanical balancing system won’t stop a behavioral issue, at least not directly.

Now, as I said yesterday, no system is going to solve all these problems, but it’s worth understanding what these problems are so you can better assess whether the tools you have are going to help or hinder the process.

1 – There’s a reasonable argument that 4E has not moved as far beyond it as it first appears, but characters do start with more options, and can no longer be killed by a bag of cats. I call that progress.

2 – Because, of course, forbidden combinations with obscure powers are usually where the genuine abuses of a system come up. Thankfully, you can usually tell when a player is picking combos for abusive reasons because, well, it won’t be the first time. Say no or talk about it or do whatever you need. The only time it’s a real worry is if your player tries to trick you, pretending they’re not looking at combos. At that point, their ass may need a good bouncing.

3 – One great passive-aggressive attention-getting tactic is to play the victim. All a player needs to do is throw himself into situations where he needs to be rescued to keep the focus on himself, and he can hide behind his weakness if challenged.

4 – One more excellent argument for balance existing on the player level, not the character level.


Balance is one of the big goblins of game design. Over the past decade or so, its position as a sacred institution has been (thankfully) tarnished, so it’s no longer an automatic assumption that every character needs to be balanced with every other character in a strict technical sense. More than any game, I point to Eden’s Buffy RPG for driving this point home, with an explicit power level split offset by other play elements. But the funny thing is it’s an old idea. One of the cornerstones of old school D&D, the magic user, was based on a foundation of imbalance[1]. Depending on level, you could expect him to be far less or far more effective than other party members.

Now, like all such ideas, there’s a bit of a pendulum effect to it. Once you get discard the idea of effectiveness-based balance, it’s not a long trip to treating it as a bad or restrictive thing – something to be discarded. I understand that impulse, but it’s overkill, and to understand why it’s worth pulling back a bit to examine the thinking behind balance.

See, Balance is a means to an end, and that end is this: everyone playing should have a fair chance at having a good time. If you have wildly disparate power levels in a game with a strong combat element (think D&D) then you end up in an Angel Summoner & BMX Bandit(vid link) situation, where one character solves problems and others get to watch. That’s a bad outcome based on the fact that it’s a less fun outcome.

It’s with this in mind that a lot of models have been create to support balance. As another example, if a game has other avenues of play than combat (like social or political), the idea became that you could achieve balance by allowing characters to excel within their specific arena. The combat guy gets to shine in fights, the talker gets to shine in social situations and so on. This can work, but it takes a LOT of effort. One arena (often combat) can overwhelm the others if the game’s mechanics lean that way or if the stakes are higher.[2] A good GM can juggle this, but doing so is almost always a function of GM skill, and that’s not a great thing to depend on in a design.

An interesting corner got turned when some games opened up a different venue and moved the issue of balance onto the player. The idea, generally speaking, is that every player has equal (or at least equitable) power or authority, even if their characters do not. This model can range from Buffy (Slayer is more powerful, supporting characters get more ‘drama points’) to full on hippie ideas like giving players narrative authority.

None of these solutions work in every game, but I think the last one is very informative, even if its never used. The emphasis that it’s the players who need equal time is of critical importance because it comes back to the original problem: keeping everyone engaged. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of a specific power or specific rule and forget that the reason you’re doing all this is to keep your players engaged.

Now, why is all this necessary? Can’t a good GM fairly distribute spotlight time at the table? Well…not really.

It’s not that the skill doesn’t exist, but to do it well we need to be much better at self assessment than any of us can reasonably expect to be. As a GM, we’re going to be drawn to the problem cases or the things that we think take things in an interesting direction. Those are good impulses, but they mean we are vulnerable to spotlight hogs, and we’re going to misjudge how fairly we distribute the time.

All of which is to say that you want to have some manner of focus balancing mechanic, even if it’s a simple as “This is Bob’s spotlight episode.” Mechanical balance or distinct roles are perfectly valid ways to handle this (something 4e thrives on), it’s just not the only way. So take a look at some of your other games[3] and think about how they hand (implicitly or explicitly) keeping everyone at the table engaged. You might pick up a trick or two.

1 – Ars Magica also had a profound disparity, but its handling was still overall equitable.
2 – This is, in my mind, why 4e is designed to be a pretty weak system outside of combat. The balance is _explicitly_ within the scope of combat, and stepping too far outside that sphere risks disrupting the finely tuned machine.

3 – If Primetime Adventures 3e were out right now, I’d plug it here. But it’s not, so I can’t. Instead, I’ll say this: if you ever get a chance to read a copy of PTA (any edition), stop and look at the spotlight rules. They’re genuinely brilliant.

Random Ideas

Here’s one for Random Encounter Tables.

Use 2d6, two different colors. After each roll, one of them is the “anchor”

Dice as opportunities- number you roll based on what you do, choose opportunity you take advantage of.

More on the Current Game

Started chargen for the Cold Wars semi-supers game last night, but did not finish it. I’m taking it a reminder that when we play, we need to start at 7:30 on the nose or we’re just not going to have enough time to play much of anything.

I finished drafting up the skill list, pretty much at the last minute. Ended up slightly shorter than I expected, and it’s this:

Technician (includes vehicles)

(Politician is distinguished from diplomat as being on the administrative and legal side of matters, while diplomat covers most social skills).

With only 7 skills, that means the breakdown is 1:2:3 – 1 world class(+6), 2 highly trained(+4), 3 trained (+2) and one outlier (+0).

Fred also made an interesting suggestion for the combat system, specifically to not allow consequences to stack (that is, you can’t take more than one on a given hit). Makes big hits scarier, and it may do what I need.

The Characters
Grey Waters – Field Analyst
Grey went to college on a government scholarship where he tested well. REALLY well. Well enough to inspire an NSA/CIA turf war before it was discovered his analyses were potentially superhuman, at which point The Program got Dibs. He can make very accurate big picture predictions, and see trending, but there is always some key element of uncertainty in them.
Callsign: Grey Cat (He requested Schrodinger, but the office typewriter has no umlaut, so he got stuck with Cat instead)
Aspects: People are hard, groups are easy
“I’m sort of a big picture guy”
The facts speak for themselves

Anna Sorosky (ne Peka, ne Rivers) – Linguist, Communications
Anna’s a Russian expatriate who somehow holds dual citizenship. She’s from a large Jewish family, and her parents took her to America when she was young so her father, a scientist, could work for the government. The family consensus is he works on nuclear weapons, but no one knows for sure. She made a very Russian hippie in her youth, but her father managed to get her a job transcribing recorded phone calls from Russia for the government. While on the job, she ended up transcribing a conversation that wasn’t recorded and revealing a mole in the program, and her talent for listening in on radio waves. From there, she was quickly ushered into The Program.
Callsign: Antenna
Aspects: Matryoshka
Everyone’s Only Human

Colonel Rufus “Bull” Lake – Goddamned Hero
Rufus was born on a family farm in Arrowhead, MIssouri in 1920 and served with honor in WWII, first in North Africa and then later in Italy (Where he earned the nickname “The Water Bull of Cassino”). His acts of heroism got him put on the short list for the super soldier program which the army had started in anticipation of the brutal fighting expected to take Japan. The program was rendered moot by the atomic bomb, but by then he and a few others had already been altered. Now 60 years old, he looks 40, but remains in the field due to a number of impolitic decisions.
Callsign: TBD
Aspects: Far from home, far from ordinary
I’m a goddamned hero
Decisions are worth the consequences

Flashpoint #1: 1976
(This was the third phase of chargen, the team’s first mission together.)
Bull’s old team was transporting a Mark in Central America when things went pear shaped. The Mark in question looks like an 8 year old girl and causes earthquakes whenever she touches the ground, and the longer she went between touches, the larger the quake), and when she was taken, it unleashed a giant earthquake in Guatemala, killing thousands. Bull’s team died, and he barely survived. With his new team (Grey and Anna) they managed to track the Mark to China and stage a rescue. It went badly. They were taken prisoner, and faced a decision to either unleash the mark (who had been suspended in the air for months at this point, building up an immense charge). They chose to save her, unleashing an earthquake that killed a quarter of a million people[1], and managed to escape. The coda was the boat they took her home on was the first place she had been able to run and play like a kid ever, because the water diminished her impact.

We’ll be doing the next two phases in email, and then picking up Monday after the holiday.

1 – Both earthquakes are historical events, two of the nastiest earthquakes in history taking place in the same year, with the Tangshan earthquake being especially horrific. To be frank, I feel a little bit dodgy about this. Purely fictionalized events I can deal with, but these are real tragedies, well within living memory. It seems disrespectful to repurpose them this way. I may take future disasters a little further afield.

System for Tonight

So, my wife asked me what system I’d be using to run tonight’s game. My answer “probably a Fate mod.” Her reply, “Why would you mod Fate?” left me staring a little blankly because, as I eventually said “I’ve never NOT modded Fate. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as unmodded Fate in my mind.” And it’s true. Even the “purest” version of Fate, the 2.0 ruleset, is mostly just a book of options. 7 Magic systems, 3 combat models and rather than a skill list, a section on how to create skill lists. SOTC and Dresden are more specific builds, as are games like Diaspora and Starblazers, but when all is said and done, Fate remains an idea defined by its exceptions. And I’m ok with that.

So, a few thoughts on the exceptions for chargen tonight:


I’m going to take some of my ideas about tiering and use them to create a modified pyramid that has three levels: You’re good at this, You’re notably awesome at this, and you are truly world class at this. I’ll be doing either a 4:2:1 or 5:3:1 distribution of these, depending on how long the final skill list ends up being, but the real mechanical tweak I’m going to pull here is numerical: those tiers are going to be valued at +2, +4 and +6. Yes, that means the steps of the skill ladder will actually be broader than the results ladder, and will also go higher than is normally the case.

There are a few things I expect to come of this. First, the fact that it make an aspect invocation equal to a tier step is nice symmetry, but only directly important because of aspect tweaking (see below). More, it’s going to emphasize the importance of skill levels, but even more, it opens up an interesting option. It’s my expectation that it won’t be hard to pick up a +1 bonus, from tools, situation or the like, but even if there are multiple sources, that bonus will never go above +1 (though it may be possible to use extra bonuses to offset penalties). Being able to casually hand out that bonus as a reward is a nice tool, especially since doing so does not break the overall model.

Better yet, the underlying thinking is really this: the +1 bonus is easy to get by being interesting. Being clever or cool, or even using gadgets, is all interesting to me. My expectation is that my players will be interesting the vast majority of the time, and as such they will get this reward the vast majority of the time. The limitation keeps that bonus from being a “The most creative guy gets all the toys” that Exalted stunting allows, but it scales to work at all skill levels. The one qualifier is that It will probably be easier to get the bonus at low levels than at high ones. if you have a +2, then almost anything will help. If you have a +6, trivial junk isn’t as much of a help.[1]


Couple aspect changes. First, because this is a less heroic game, there’s going to be a restriction on aspect stacking and some tweaks in terminology. You utilize your aspects, finesse allies and location aspects and you exploit enemies aspects. On a given roll, you can utilize and finesse only once. You can exploit as many times as there are aspects to use.

This is a theme reinforcer. Discovering secrets (finding people’s aspects) is more powerful than leveraging your own advantages, which you are kind of presumed to to.

Additionally, each character may have one low-key super power, and I’m just going to reflect that with an aspect. With only 3 players, I can get away with that kind of subjective approach, allowing the invocation (sorry, Utilization) for effect to have deeper impacts than normal. Might also allow it a larger than +2 bonus when appropriate.


Combat’s going to be nasty. Nasty enough that I rarely expect it to last more than a round or two. Still pondering how to reflect that. One option is to use the -2/-4/-6 system with a zero length stress track. I think that’s going to be my fallback, but I’m not entirely sure that it quite gets me what I need. One option is a more brutal reduction set (-1/-3/-5) but I really need to think what I want fights to look like. Do I want brutal and lethal but action-ey (think Bourne) or do i want death to come from a snub nosed revolver in a dark alley (which would suggest an even more lethal system).

Still pondering this one.


Don’t actually anticipate using stunts. Again, with a 3 person game, interpretive aspect use covers all the reason’s I’d want stunts.

Obviously, I’m still sorting out the details, and will be until the last possible minute, but i figured I’d share a snapshot of where it stands in my brain this morning.

1 – This is totally a subjective, GM-driven kind of thing, and as such not really a fair rule per se, but I think the narrative sensibilities of it will be transparent enough.

Ipad Follow Up

Man, this has been a long week. I’ve been sick since Saturday and I think this is the first day I may have finally fully shaken it. I feel like I’ve been running with three engines down, so as we come into Friday, I’m going abit less thoughtful and a bit more nerdy, and following up on my previous post about my experience with the iPad.

I’ve now had a lot more time to use it in what I consider a “Grown up” context, that is to say in my day job, and by and large I have gotten more impressed with it, but certain small things have gotten on my nerves.

First and foremost – the wifi thing. The ipad’s handling of wifi connections is flaky at best. There seem to be several underlying expressions of this – DHCP issues and such – but my sense is that it all stems from overzealous power management. I suspect it lets wifi connections die when you’re not using them, and then is pretty bad about re-establishing them, sometimes losing networks entirely. This would be crappy for another product but it’s terrible for apple whose selling point is that this stuff is supposed to work. They apparently have a fix in the works, but I’m not holding my breath.

It’s not a crippling problem, but it’s definitely an annoying one, especially in the absence of multi-tasking. Having to swap apps to the “Settings” app to fix a network connection (for me, swapping to airplane mode then back fixes everything) is clunky and frustrating.

Thankfully, it’s only a fraction of the experience, even less so than normal for me because I have the 3g model, so I only notice wifi shenanigans when I’m at home. 3g has been totally worth the investment, and at the price, I end up feeling like I’m overpaying for my phone (which is to say, I’m happy to pay for the ipad, and if contracts allowed, I’d probably switch to a less smart phone to more than make up for the cost of connectivity). It has weird hiccups, like any cellular coverage, but since I don’t live in NYC or San Francisco, it holds up pretty well. It does have weird limits – I discovered today you can’t buy apps over 20 megs over it, for example – and it makes for choppy video streaming, but it’s worked reliably enough that I look forward to having it for connectivity on the road.

Speaking of which, HOLY CRAP the GPS is good, especially compared to my droid. I can literally zoom in on google maps picture view and watch it accurately reflect me walking around the house. Combined with the 3g, it’s the ultimate triptych. When my family goes driving (which we do for fun), my wife drives and I navigate, which usually means I have to deal with map books or google maps printouts. Ditching all that and just using the ipad is an unbelievable upgrade.

The external bluetooth keyboard continues to hold up very well – I find I actually very much enjoy writing on it. I’ve seen the case made that if you use the external kb a lot you’d be better off with a macbook air, but I don’t see it. I get plenty of use out of the iPad in normal form, but have the keyboard on hand to write and take notes (and their combined footprint is still crazy small). My only complaint is that the keyboard was not designed for travel, and it’s very easy for it to get turned on in my bag. Once it’s on, it syncs itself, and when I pull out the ipad, I discover I’m getting no onscreen keyboard because it thinks I have the keyboard out. Fixable, but annoying. On the whole, keyboard support in the apps is kind of lacking, but I hope that changes with time.

I’m still using the kindle for most of my reading, but I have ended up doing a little reading form the Ipad and I could see it growing on me. Still, Kindle’s benefits are just overwhelming for now.

Battery life is still awesome. I have charging stations in a few locations, just to be safe, but keeping it charged is mostly just an afterthought.

Anyway, onto the real rub of it: Apps

I have, er, 68 apps installed over and above the ones it came with. Scarily, this is fewer than are on my iPod Touch. I am an absolute junkie for trying out new apps to try to find just the right tool for my needs. I’m not going to run through them all, but I’ll hit the highlights:

Kindle, Netflix, ABC Player, Comix and Goodreader – I’m not even going to bother talking about these except to say that every iPad should have them for reasons that become apparent almost immediately.

Note Taking – This is the category where I have the most contenders. They’re all pretty similar structurally – like the built in Notes app with more features. Some offer interesting organization schemas (the corkboard of Corkulous), some offer the ability to insert images (Sundry Notes, Sketchnotes, Paperdesk) or record (Soundpaper). There are even some mind mapping apps (Mindnode and iThoughtsHD) which work less well than you’d imagine, but are kind of neat. None of these are bad (though Sundry Notes seems to trip over its own features and some of them lack any means to export content – a death knell for me) I have settled on the simplest yet best looking of the lot, Notably. It just handles text, and it does that well. Solid reliability wins out for me when I need to take notes in a meeting. That said, nothing handles tabs and outlining in a way that’s actually well suited to notetaking, so I’m still on the lookout.

Writing – I’m ok using Notably for longer writing as well, but I did shell out $10 for a copy of Pages, so I keep trying to use it, and it keeps being…kind of ok. I have some apps designed to play well with google docs (GoDocs, Office2 HD) but mostly they just suggest to me how good google docs integration _could_ be. Net result being I have done writing in everything from Pages to a email composition window, and it’s all pretty much the same. I’d kill for Scrivener lite.

Art – Sketchbook pro pretty much kicks everything else’s ass in this category, but I do want to mention Penultimate, which is a virtual notebook that you scribble in with a sharpie (your finger). It’s great setup, and in a true stylus environment, it’d be genuinely brilliant. I haven’t picked up the $50 omnigraffle software yet because, well, $50, but I keep eyeing it.

Play – Plants v.s Zombies works great in this medium. Nothing else has really grabbed me yet.

Blogging – The WordPress app is decent is you want to do simple things, but that’s about all you’re going to find. I picked up BlogPress to see if I could use it with this blog, and while I technically can, it does all its drafting locally, which is useless (at least for me)

Health -Most of the good iphone apps for fitness have not yet made it to the ipad, and those that have are mostly plugins for subscription services. No winners here yet.

Communication – IM+ lite for IM, skype (iphone version) for skype. Twitter…well, I have Tweetdeck, Twitteriffic and Twittelator installed. Twitellator is the prettiest, but most useless. Tweetdeck _should_ be the best, but the inability to casually see conversations kills it for me. Twitteriffic (pro in my case) is the only Good Enough solution at the moment, though I keep checking Tweetdeck in hopes for magical improvements.

Tasks – Remember the Milk has no Ipad app yet, and Toodledo is its poor cousin. I don’t want to spend $20 on Things, so I have settled on Appigo’s ToDo, which is functionally strong (but not overwhelmingly so) and visually VERY appealing. Well worth the $5.

Content – Most of my content comes over safari, but exceptions include the NPR app, Weatherbug, and my profoundly beloved Instapaper.

Other – I’ve got Bento and Keynote, but haven’t messed with them much yet. Got some dice apps, but none grab me at this point. I have the software for Square, but am still waiting for the swiper. The one random thinkg I need to plug is Starwalk. This is one of those apps that truly needs to be seen to be believed – just hold it up, and it’s a window into the sky. I have not seen anything more magical.

What’s an Adventure Worth

Commercially, adventures are a paradox. When you talk to people about what game products they want (especially older gamers who are more likely to be pressed for time) one of the first things they’ll say is “Adventures”. But, historically, adventures really don’t sell well. A recent breakdown from Black Diamond Games runs some numbers that illustrate this pretty well, and also give a decent breakdown of why this is. The biggest reason is obvious in retrospect – in a group of 5 people for a random system, you probably have 4-5 copies of any “core” books. Supplemental books have one likely purchaser (the GM) and usually at least one other likely purchaser (other GMs in the group, or people who dig that particular topic). Adventures have an audience limited entirely to the GM, and only some GMs will buy any adventure for a host of reasons.

Given that adventures are also usually smaller and less expensive, that makes them low-volume, low-margin products. Plus, (and this is more 4e specific) they compete with free material from sources like dungeon magazine. At first glance, that may seem like a reason for an independent person to bother with getting into, but I’d argue that the reality is the opposite for two reasons.

First, while the market for PDFs is not universal, I think people are a lot more open to trying electronic products for things they consider “disposable”, like adventures. Second, while a larger company cannot reasonably consider producing a three to five dollar product and still making their nut, a lone enthusiast can do that and make a fair return. The appeal of the 4e[1] market is that even a small slice of it is pretty large on the scale that small game publisher’s operate on. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, but the point is that as a small publisher looking to publish electronically, the “adventures don’t sell” adage is less of a barrier than you might think.

But if you are looking at publishing an adventure there’s a lot of baggage to get rid of. There is an idea of a “Standard adventure format” that almost everyone who has played D&D is familiar with. It’s a few pages of backstory that may or may not ever come up in play[2], then a map or three with a number key and each room detailed as an encounter. Add in perhaps one transit zone (an outdoor map with, like, 4 encounters), a random table or two, and an appendix with stats for monsters and treasures, and you’re done.

This. Is. Crap.

At this point there are decades of habit attached to this form, and it’s easy enough to do not-badly that we will probably never be rid of it, but man, if this is what you’re planning to do for your adventure, then just stop for a second and think. Consider the differences between 4e and first edition D&D. Consider the differences between how you play now and how you played back when you started gaming.[3] If it’s apparent to you that things have changed drastically over that time, then ask yourself why the adventures haven’t.

Now, this is not entirely fair. There have been interesting adventures that have really tried push the boundaries of the form, but they exist primarily as one-offs and oddities. Sometimes this is because the alternate solutions were not very good (remember adventures coming packed with sound effect CDs?) but more often it’s because it’s a lot simpler to stick to a template, and none of the deviations from the template were such great commercial successes to demand change.[4] And, of course, some of the adventures in this classic format have been genuinely good. Even more of them have been made good through the talents of committed DMs and excited players and that muddies the waters a little.

The point at the end of this is simple: do not feel bound by the structure of traditional adventures as you create your own. Look at your own notes and preparation and consider whether you could make an adventure that looks more those. Look at the things you need to copy or mark up in an adventure and ask yourself why they’re not right there in the module. Make the adventure that would be useful at your table today, not at a table in Wisconsin in 1979.

To that end, here are a few points to think about.

Kill Boxed Text – seriously. This is a terrible legacy of the days when it was critically important to mention that there were exactly 7 torches on the eastern wall. Every time I think we’re past this particular chestnut, it springs up somewhere else. Instead, consider using that wordspace for something that’s actually useful to the GM’s and the players. Use it to frame the encounter as a scene, giving the GM an idea of how it’s expected things will unfold, and ways it will probably go wrong. This might take the form of tactical advice, or it might be a description to the GM that is actually interesting enough that he doesn’t need boxed text.

That’s the real kicker of course. Things which actually grab the GM and player attention don’t need boxed text. Boxed text is a way to convey the boring stuff. And you gotta ask: if it’s boring, do you really need it in your game?

Take Advantage of The Format – If your PDF adventure looks like a book that hasn’t been printed, you’ve wasted an opportunity. You aren’t bound by the need to make a specific page count or to conserve whitespace. Consider that a PDF lets you do something as simple as put each encounter on its own page so the GM can easily reference them at the table. That’s HUGELY more convenient. In fact, if you assume that people might want to print the useful parts of the PDF, you can go a step further and make sure to include space for notes, tracking damage and anything else. Include handouts because, dammit, if you’re printing stuff out anyway, then handouts are AWESOME.

And hell, if you’ve got the technical chops, make the PDF have a few bells and whistles too. Note sections, checkmark boxes to track monster hit points and power use. This isn’t mandatory, but it’s certainly a nice bonus.

The challenge, to my mind, is this: can you make your adventure so the GM doesn’t need to bring any other paper to the table? Can he print out what he needs, use it for notation, and be done? Consider all the things that you, as a GM, keep track of during an adventure[5], and what that would suggest. It’s daunting, but amazing once you realize it’s doable.

Play With Structure – Dungeons are great, but they’re only one way to make for good adventures. Look at things like rich locations (Hammerfast), Flowcharts (White Wolf’s SAS, 3e’s SPeaker in dreams), Hard & Soft Points (Alderac’s 7th Sea/L5R adventures), Plot Points (Savage Worlds), Three Fight Scenes (Feng Shui) and many more for ideas of ways to present information. And this leads into the next point:

Steal Good Ideas – Read adventures from games you don’t play. It’s an amazingly informative thing to do, because in the absence of an understanding of mechanics, the heart of the adventure is laid bear, and sometimes wonderful and sometimes it’s just embarrassing to see. There have been a lot of good ideas in adventure design in a lot of different places, but not many of them have trickled back up to D&D adventure design. This is an opportunity for you. Companies may trademarks terms (Pinnacle has apparently trademarked “Plot Point Adventures”) but the general method of presentation can be reused freely, just call it something else.

Repurpose Existing Tools – There are certain classic elements to an adventure like the overland map, the hometown, the random encounter tables and so on that are not bad ideas, they just have been treated badly in the traditional format[6]. Fleshing out any of these elements in unexpected ways can bear unexpected use.

Consider Usage – How many good fight scenes can you get in over the course of one session? Me, if I want them to be really good and compelling, we’re talking 2, maybe 3 in one sitting. Certainly I can squeeze in more if they’re just gimmicky little fights, but I don’t like even bothering with those. Plus, if the non-fight stuff is actually going to be interesting, that chews up time too. So with that in mind, how much use do you think a 47 room dungeon is to me? Deferred reward is nice to a point, but something like that is going to take me weeks to go through[7], and I promise you that in several weeks, my players expect a LOT more. If one of my games were to go 6 weeks without some sort of major turn, I’d have a mutiny on my hands. 6 weeks in a dungeon? Hell no.

Now, that’s just me. Maybe you go through fights more quickly. Maybe you’re more comfortable with small, fast fights rather than big setpieces. it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that people actually need to play this adventure, and that’s going to take time. With that in mind, consider each encounter: is this awesome enough to merit me spending my time on, or is it just a speedbump between me and the good stuff? There’s a completist urge to put a monster in every room, to make the player fight every inch of the way to the end, and that’s got its place, but I don’t need to pay you money for a mediocre, time-chewing experience. If it’s not going to make the adventure more awesome, just skip it, no matter how much you feel it “needs” to be there.

1 – I’m couching this primarily in 4e terms because it’s easier than speaking generally, but a lot of this will apply to any other game as well. Some things are different – I’d be very leery of publishing adventures for a non-open game system, for example, because of IP issues – but the broad strokes are the same. Plus, there’s a nice law of inverses at work – other games have smaller markets, yes, but they also tend to be proportionally hungrier for adventures.

2- And if it does come up, it may just take the form of an infodump from an old sage or the like. That is not a meaningful improvement over “never coming up”.

3 – If not, the old school renaissance is probably more up your alley. Totally cool if so, but that’s not something I can offer much insight on.

4 – That said, man, I am hoping that 4e’s new Adventure Site model sells well. Most interesting shift in published adventures since White Wolf’s SAS.

5 – When I was running exalted (a white wolf system that uses lots of d10s) i did all my prep on special paper that I’d prepared by printing in advance. I created a left hand sidebar that was 10 characters wide and filled it with random numbers. Since exalted required a lot of die rolling, I used the paper to save myself headaches – if I needed to roll 5 dice, i could just cross off the next 5 numbers and use those as rolls. Something like this for 4e would be a little trickier, but still totally doable.

6 – To this day, I think that X1: The Isle of Dread, is one of the most brilliant adventures of all time, which is absolutely GUTTED by the necessities of presentation.

7 – And going through it will reveal that it’s 10% awesome and 90% filler. I’d rather have a 4 room dungeon that’s 100% awesome and be done in 1 or two session, simple as that.

Third Party, Fourth Edition

Back when One Bad Egg shut its doors, it was a decision based on the nature of the third party marketplace for 4e products. The products we were most interested in, ones with fiddly bits to plug into the game like the magnificent Hard Boiled Armies[1]. It only had a small amount of mechanical crunch, but what it had needed to be able to plug back into character creation, and that’s where the rub came up. Our sense was that between DDI and the character builder, there was not much room for third party material that would get reflected on the character sheet.

The thinking was simple. Character builder is well designed to handle all the complexities of 4e chargen, including making sure that all bonuses get reflected automatically when appropriate. This is great, but since it doesn’t support third party material[2], and everything is so tightly integrated, if you see one cool third party thing you like, you need to discard the character builder entirely to get it. That’s a sucky tradeoff. Character builder keeps things manageable as the body of 4e lore gets bigger, and it’s really good at that. So good that We couldn’t imagine anyone discarding it.

So, we saw the writing on the wall and shut down. It was sad, but that’s the biz. In retrospect, I still feel like it was the right call, as the trend seems to have held up, and some of the problems expected have also materialized from it.[3] But I still think about it sometime.

See, there are a lot of things the current structure makes impractical for third party publishing; classes, races, paragon paths, epic destinies, feats, powers and magic items[4] most notably. These are all the elements which, if someone wants to use, they can’t use the Character Builder. But that does leave a few things on the table. To break it down a little, let’s use the one specific example: Monsters.

Monsters are the first thing that spring to mind. Monsters are mechanically self contained, and the fact that WOTC hasn’t built an integrated encounter builder (yet) means there’s no real overhead difference between using a WOTC monster and a third party monster, excepting the ease-of-use issue of copying and pasting out of the compendium.[5] Monsters are a great playground to kick around interesting mechanical elements – they’re just _fun_ to build – but a pure monster product is only going to go so far. Because it’s so easy to reskin and tweak monsters in existing products, the entire usage pattern of monster books has changed. In previous editions, only a fraction of a monster book could ever practically be used, but now you can potentially use EVERY monster in the book (limited by level range), even if it doesn’t suit your campaign because you can reskin it. This means that monster books of the past (here are MORE MONSTERS! We’ll just throw them at the wall and as long as a few of them stick, you’ll feel you got your money’s worth!) are no longer a useful model. The bar is a little higher, and the competition is fiercer – your monster idea is entering an environment of plenty, not one of scarcity – so it needs to rock.

There are a few ways to make this happen, and they reveal something you can expect to see again. Monsters will be a good sell if they include all the tools for making them useful to the DM. This might include things like background and ecology, but only if they translate into play – there are really good, play driving examples of monster ecology out there but there are many more hopelessly academic sounding wanks. Don’t go this route just because you feel you have to. Similarly, it might include ways to tie the monster into the campiagn. As with ecologies, this is a little more hit or miss. Consider a brilliant product like Nevermet Press’s The Desire – it’s almost 60 pages dedicated to a specific recurring villain. It’s *really* well done, well enough done that it will probably be a clear hit or a clear miss. If you can use it in your game, it’s awesome, but if you can’t, that’s a lot of good material gone to waste (from the DM’s perspective).

Of greatest use is anything that helps the DM actually build an encounter with the monster. That is, after all, where the rubber hits the road – The whole reason a DM wants to use your monster is because he has some cool idea for an encounter that it inspired. He might get that out of looking at the powers and thinking “ooh, I want to see that in a fight” but if you can make that easier for him? And if you can give him more than one way this critter could complicate a fight? Made of win.

And that’s the truth of it. Beyond monsters you can have all manner of interesting products, from adventures to cards for tracking things to custom action points, but they’re all just going to be novelties unless they *solve a problem*. 4e has a lot of smoothly integrated moving parts, but a few exposed rough surfaces, and if you want to sell a third party product[6], it needs to be part of the latter, not the former. This is rough because there’s so much cool stuff in the smoothly moving parts, but it’s reality. You need to look at what you bring to the table, what you *use* at the table that the game does not already provide. That’s where you’re going to find the products that people will want and use themselves, even if they don’t really know they want it yet. And the good news is, if you’re playing and running 4e regularly, you’re already producing everything you need.

There’s a bit of a stigma on the idea of publishing material from your own table. The idea is that you’re just upjumping your own campaign, and that might have held some weight in the past when the game was very different, but nowadays? It’s utter crap. If you do something at your table that is fun and useful for you, then the odds are very good it’d be fun and useful for someone else too. Whether it’s a fun monster, a well-built skill challenge, an interesting encounter or just some best practice for tracking statuses or the like, other people could benefit from it. Sure, you can’t productize everything, but why would you want to? Pick the few things that really made you think “This really worked” and see about putting them out there.

And don’t be discouraged if there are no products like that already. That’s a false barrier. A lot of this new 4e stuff doesn’t work in old models (and oh, man, it gets painful when someone tries to force it to work) and we need to find the new models to express it. Shit, after all this time we still can’t find consistently good ways to talk about skill challenges intelligently. This isn’t because people haven’t had good ideas, it’s because no one has stepped forward with a “Skill Challenges, Dammit” product to start the conversation. Yes, it might not be well received. Any product you release might flop. But if you go into it with your eyes open and your passion engaged, you’ll be amazed what might come of it.

Start the conversation.

1- I can safely call it magnificent because I never laid a finger on that one.
2- It does have a little space for freeform feats, but no mechanical support.

3- This is probably fodder for its own post at some point, but it comes down to this. 4e has reached a point of complexity where it is a software-assisted game. That’s cool, to a point, because they’ve provided chargen software and an online database, and those are good things. It’s also bad because it means another level of barrier to entry. The way you tip that balance is to leverage the software end of it into more of an asset – integrate the tools, make the more useful and more available. Unfortunately, that requires that WOTC either commit more resources in house or open up the toolset, and they seem disinclined to do either. It’s a very businessey decision – development is not cheap and the return is questionable, so spending that money is out. Opening up the software might get the tools, but it also opens up the software and the data, potentially exposing the rules to piracy, business loss and other lawyerly scenarios. So they sit tight, and I think it’s a great shame. 4E really is a fantastic game, but it could be doing more.

4 – This one is a real shame, but they plug into the character builder the same as everything else.

5 – Which is a point of reminder: If your pdf product doesn’t allow copy & paste, it’s a lot less useful to a GM building an encounter.

6 – If you don’t want to sell it, if you’re just writing it because you love it, then screw all this noise. Do what you dig.