Monthly Archives: November 2011

What’s in the Box?

While I have specific demands for maps in games, the issue if more muddled in pure-setting products, most famously defined by the boxed sets for things like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. These are well-loved products, and their design sensibilities have influenced many setting products that followed, but they merit some examination. The questions that intrigues me is what the purpose of these products really is – are they designed to be played in, or are they just bookshelves, waiting to be filled?

To understand the distinction, let’s look at Greyhawk vs. the Realms. Greyhawk was designed to be played in if only because there wasn’t much choice otherwise. It was such an early product that it’s design as almost pure map plus gazetteer made a lot of sense. You could take it, pick a spot, and play your game. Yet even bearing that in mind, one of the interesting things about Greyhawk was that it provided a context for the locations of published adventures. I know that sent a little thrill down my spine the first time I discovered a note indicating which hex a particular adventure was taking place in. That was, I think, an inidcation of things to come.
The Forgotten Realms was subtly different. Not so much in content; there were some changes, but not enough to really change the type of product. It was, however, a different beast from a commercial perspective. The Realms were a container, one able to hold any number of smaller supplements, novels, video-games and lord-knows what else. In that sense, the initial boxed set was a skeleton to be steadily fleshed out, and TSR delivered on that promise. The realms might have been thin and disconnected at the outset, but they filled it in admirably.

(At this point there’s a requirement for an obligatory nod to the GMs of old whose insane notes provided the basis for these settings, and I hereby provide it, but only grudgingly. I applaud their creativity while I bemoan the fact that they convinced generations that binders full of data no one gives a crap about were going to be the next big thing.)

This kitchen-sink model has had a huge impact on setting design, but it’s fascinating to me because it’s so much at odds with the realities of play as I’ve seen them. By and large, I have seen games either drill down into a specific are or, if covering a broad area, touch upon the setting very lightly. That is to say, real games tend to be narrow and deep or broad and shallow, but the average boxed set aims to be broad and medium-deep, thereby serving neither need.

Now, product do exist to support these actual approaches. Many settings have “Gazeteers” or similar books – very slim (maybe 32 pages) volumes providing a very high level view of the setting, and almost all setting that produce subsequent books produce more detailed region books, those that zoom in on a specific area. Those products are much closer to the actual usage patterns of play, but they are secondary products.

This suggests a fairly cynical purpose for the main boxed set, which I alluded to above. It’s the stake in the ground that allows a publisher to tether those more-useful document to. The big setting with its big map is not necessarily there to be used on its own, rather, it’s a menu of sorts. It’s a resource that lets you find the glittering object that catches your eye and choose which area you want to zoom in on. At that point, perhaps you will flesh it out yourself, but ideally (from the publisher’s POV, at least) you’ll buy the book that deals with the part that caught your eye. Better still, you’ll be curious about a few areas, and pick up several books!

Does this sound like I’m asserting that the default model of presenting a setting is tooled more towards selling books than use in play? Well, yes, I suppose I am. Not to say that you can’t do both – I can think of several great examples where those two ideas have dovetailed awesomely (Birthright being the absolute best, in this regard). Plus, the people writing these things are almost always doing it out of genuine love, and that tends to muck with more cynical goals.

In some ways, it’s been very fortunate for the hobby that we’re so bad at business.

Double Edged Maps

I love maps in RPG products. There’s something utterly compelling to me about detailed maps of things and places that don’t exist. They’re a joy to look at, and they’re fantastically information-dense. You can derive a lot of meaning about relationships and tensions in a setting just by studying a map and considering how people get form point A to Point B, or wondering how people in that mountain kingdom get crops, and how that impacts their relationship with the folks on those rolling plains next door. To this day, I have a huge fondness for Sunndi (a section of Greyhawk), despite never having actually played in it, because I really spent a lot of time zoomed in on that section of the map, thinking about it.

I want to make that love very clear, because I’m about to say something that seems to contradict it. When I see an RPG product with a huge map of the world, I immediately flinch and worry about the quality of the game. It is, to me, a red flag.

See, to me, a map is a promise. It shows me what’s going to be important to the game, and if you give me a world map, then I’m going to think that the game operates at a global level, and this is a problem when it does not. If the game has a narrower focus (as most do – truly global games are rare) then not only have I been handed a bait and switch, but I have also been handed a great deal of extraneous data. That might be annoying, but not merit a red flag, except for one other issue: It makes me wonder what the designer was thinking. That is, if they don’t understand what their game is about well enough to scale the map appropriately, what else is off base? It’s a brown M&M.

This is not to say that all large maps are bad. A large, detailed map is entirely appropriate for games of a certain scale, and I don’t begrudge them it. In fact, I think it’s pretty easy to spot the game/map mismatches if you look closely. And it’s fun to look for, since it also helps you see the games that really, really understand what their map was for. To that end, I want to call out a fantastic post by John Harper about what makes maps really fly in Apocalypse World, and add a big thumbs up to it. This is what a map should do for your game, and if it doesn’t, ask yourself why not.

D&D Media

I do not drink often, but one of the occasions when I made an exception was the watch the Dungeons & Dragons movie with Fred. In retrospect, this was a very good idea. It was a terrible, terrible movie, primarily made tolerable by how much Jeremy Irons very clearly did not want to be there.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of really terrible movies, and I have to admit that the majority of the most terrible ones have been ones written to pander to me as a nerd – think Max “I’m the Smartest Cop In The World” Payne, Doom or the entire Uwe Boll oeuvre. These tend to have a common thread between them (which they share with the D&D movie) in that they tend to fall into two camps. The first are so interested in celebrating the subject of the movie that enthusiasm is used as spackle where stronger structural material might be in order. The second aren’t even interested – they just feel like they’re transcribing someone else’s interest, and the net result is something that by some miracle of suck manages to be both bloodless and putrescent.

Superhero movies have been pulling themselves out of this nosedive, and to my eyes it’s pretty clear this has been a result of a decision that these movies should not just rest on their subject material, and should in fact be good movies that happen to be superhero movies. This is not something that’s a function of any one element – writing, direction and performances have all played a part in this change – but there is an ineffable and critical change that happens when you decide the license is not enough (and, as a corollary, a sickening thud when you decide that it is).

All of which comes back to D&D. Like super heroes and video games, D&D has a long history of sucking pretty bad (if you remember the cartoon fondly, do yourself the favor of never watching it again), but like those other properties, the problems are not rooted in the material. There is nothing that keeps there from being a good D&D movie or cartoon, it’s just a function of making sure it’s good first, and D&D second.

If you doubt this, look to comic books. This is a really interesting time for D&D comics because of two things, both coming out of IDW. First, they’ve released collections of the old Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms comics. Second, they’ve released a new series of D&D comics, and the first collection is magnificent.

Now, I read the old comics back in the day, and I enjoyed them a lot, but in retrospect I feel safe describing them as inside baseball. They were fun, but they were mostly fun because I was already a D&D guy. I doubt they’d have moved my needle if they’d been “Generic Fantasy Comics”. In contrast, the new books (penned by the tremendously talented John Rogers) are a lot of fun in their own right. Zippy dialog, great art – all the things that would make it fun even if it weren’t called D&D.

That gives me hope. It’s a concrete illustration of what can be done with this thing I love (totally separate from these games I love). Why is this important? Well, it’s business. This could probably merit its own post, but you’d be better served listening to the latest episode of That’s How We Roll – it’s an interview with Peter Adkinson, and you will learn more about the business of D&D from that podcast than you will from anything else I can think of.

Notes from my talk

I gave a talk at Metatopia on Sunday on talking to the talent and promised to post my notes, so here they are in all their semi-comprehensible glory. That said, on a lark, I recorded the bit of advice I got from Fred, so I’m throwing that up here as a bonus (warning – hugely amateur sound – this was me in 15 minutes between calls on my laptop).


  • This will be hard because you are probably also a writer
  • Giving people work that you could do yourself requires you to conciously let go and trust


  • Tips From Fred

    Make sure that when you say something like a quarter page, define that in inches
    discuss resolution (300dpi minimum)
    Size weenies
    If you’re working in print, you want CMYK, not RGB
    Have some expectations for the image, communicate them clearly, but don’t be married to your vision. You’re paying them for their expertise.
    Do the reference image research for them if you can.
    If possible, do an art reference of These characters in these places, esp if you’ve got strongly recurring characters or places.
    If you don’t have the images, you may want to do a round of references images first.
    Make it clear to the artist what stages of the process you want to be involved in
    Maybe even roughs/concept sketches
    Try to get ONE intermediary step, just for course corrections

  • Blog: The Art OrderDifferent process, but informativeWOTC Guy


  • Editor Blogs
  • You don’t need to communicate a lot with editors once you get going BUT
  • You need to communicate your vision to them to help them help you achieve it
  • When in doubt, blame the editor.


  • Go read Robin Williams “Non-Designers Design Book”
  • Very solid crash course in understanding what the layout guy is talking about.


  • Yes, it’s marketing, even if you don’t call it that
  • Social Media
  • Evangelizers and engagement
  • Demo Teams
  • Demo Kits
  • Benefits and dangers of empowerment

Business Partners

  • Distributors
  • Shop Owners
  • Printers


  • Benefits and drawbacks of transparency
  • No bad reviews
  • Don’t be a dick – let the other guy do it

Collaboration Tools

  • Dropbox
  • Wikis
  • Basecamp
  • You WILL use MS word
  • Update schedule

Also, A hat tip to John, the editor who came up and helped me out at the talk byt talking about, well, talking to editors. You can check him out on twitter at @awesome_john or at his blog.

This Metatopia Thing

A while back, Vinnie had an idea.

Vinnie, for those that don’t know, is the robot brain behind Dreamation, Dexcon and a host of other nerd events in northern New Jersey. I’ve talked in the past about how good Dreamation and Dexcon are, and a lot of that is a reflection on how hard Vinnie works.

These conventions have historically been hotbeds of game design activity – a place to run playtests and to talk with designers of small press games. The problem is, the streams don’t always mix well, and this came to a head at a previous convention, when confusions between what was play testing and what was actually a game to play interfered with some people’s experience.

So, Vinnie pitched the idea of peeling off some of this and creating a designer-centric convention, one explicitly for playtests, discussion groups, seminars and roundtables. There was a lot of support for the idea, but a lot of uncertainty regarding what such a thing would look like. I admit, I shared in that uncertainty.

This past weekend was that convention: Metatopia. We got to see how the idea translated into reality, and from my perspective, it was very nearly miraculous.

I drove up very early Saturday morning, so I missed some of the fun on Friday night (including a panel of Ken Hite and Fred Hicks talkign about how to steal from other games) but I got two full days of goodness in. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I jumped in enthusiastically.

There were three major activities at the convention: Seminars, Playtests and Focus Groups.

Seminars are what you would expect: one or more people talking about some subject or other. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s worth noting that the sister conventions have historically had a fairly anemic seminiar track. The reasons for that get a bit chicken and egg, but the bottom line is that it was really nice to see good seminars with enthusiastic attendees. It was good enough that I want to see what I can do to help with seminar tracks at Dexcon & Dreamation. It also provides a double excuse to try to drag Chuck Wendig back – we totally need to get him to talk about writing.

Playtests are also reasonably self-explanatory. Designer shows up with a game, runs it, and gets feedback. These are interesting because their value really depends on the GM’s attitude. For GM’s who came into it looking to really tear into their own game to find what made it work, it was a godsend, and you could spot those GMs because they were the ones making changes in response to play experience. For GM’s who felt they had a finished game, I think it was a lot less useful – fine tuning is something you do over time. The feedback you could get at this convention was more suited to the guts of your game than the chrome.

This actually kind of hurts as a designer, because I’m not sure how to provide feedback on it, especially when it’s clear there are problems with the game. Even moreso when it’s clear the problems maybe things the designer is already married to. I don’t want to discourage people from playtesting their game in this context, but if you’re not ready to be told your game doesn’t work, it’s probably not helpful.

The last (and most interesting to me) were the focus groups. These were for people who had an idea for a game, but not necessarily much more than that. You sit down in a room and talk about your game and your ideas, and you proceed to brainstorm. For folks who’ve attended the Indie Roundtables, it’s rather like that, but more focused. I LOVED these, and I wish I had done more of them – something to make a note for next year.

Anyway, there’s a lot more to talk about, but for everyone who has wondered, I just wanted to make sure you had a sense of what this Metatopia thing is.

(I should also add, enough people at the con had nice things to say about the blog that I’m now feeling guilty about my half-assed writing schedule, so we’ll see if that can be fixed. Also, if you attended my seminar (thank you!) I’ll be posting my notes soon, probably as tomorrow’s post.)