Monthly Archives: February 2016

Spend a Point to Be Awesome

on-targetThere is a lot of merit in the very simple mechanic of “Spend a point to do something awesomely” but it raises a very interesting question of what “awesomely” means. The least interesting answer is greater efficacy – a bonus. Unfortunately, it is also the most common answer because things are measured by numerical values in most systems.

Another definition is one of spotlight and style. In terms of story “awesomely” also means “dramatically appropriately”. In the right situation, it is a tool to let a player declare that this skill *matters* in this context.

When talking about simple tiered systems, I admit a temptation to boil a system down to no skill, skill, skill awesomely, then make skilling awesomely a function of spending currency. Weirdly, this is probably what it would take to make me like gumshoe style ablative skills – guarantee that my having the skill will be respected, but allow me to spend to make it remarkable.


When I started writing this, that didn’t appeal to me much – I like general point pools more than specific ones, but as I think about it, that could totally work in actual play, especially if one of the upshots of awesomeness is that you can get in on something you maybe normally wouldn’t be able to.

Of course, the trick is then to avoid bidding wars. That is THE WORST part of systems like this. Hmm. Ok, next challenge.

Watching the 7th Sea

7sIf you don’t know by now, you should – the kickstarter for the 2nd edition of 7th Sea has launched, and it has already succeeded beyond all reasonable measures, coming up on half a million dollars as a write this.

I am going to be throwing some hardballs here, so let me start with something important – I have backed the hell out of that kickstarter, and I cannot wait to get my grabby hands on the new stuff. I have devoured the quickstart. I still have several feet of first edition material on my shelf. I love this game.

But it also, historically, has made me crazy.

7th Sea was a deeply flawed gem, and it is through that lens that I am viewing my own hopes and wishes with this new version. Looking at some of the big ones:

Fiction vs. Mechanics

The text of 7th sea emphasized that characters were swashbuckling heroes, but the mechanics more or less demanded that they be chumps. Part of this came from a point buy system that made essential gateways very expensive, so there just weren’t many points to go around. Part of it came from a landscape populated with NPCs who made it clear that the PCs were chumps and these were the people things were really about. There were other snags (roll & keep is a harsh mistress) but those two really hurt.

It’s hard to judge this one from the kickstarter. The mechanics seem looser and more friendly to competence, but I’ve been burned before. I am hopeful, but leery.

WTF Pirates

7th Sea’s setting was a pseudo-europe^f1, isolated from the rest of anything by ancient magic. This had lots of weird knock on effects (like removing Africa, which had all sorts of implications) but it also resulted in a really weird map. See, if you imagine just Faux-Europe, you’ve removed the Mediterranean as well as all ship traffic across the Atlantic. And when you remove those things, the immediate (very logical) question is “Where the hell are the pirates doing their thing?”

Yet despite that, pirates were a critically important part of the setting, so they got shoehorned in really hard. This was awkward enough, but it ended up encroaching on one of the other big themes of the setting (exploring ancient mysteries) by making that largely the domain of pirates because they had nothing else to do.

For 2nd edition, it looks like the map has improved somewhat. What’s more, based on the stuff they’ve show, I would wager that this moves the clock forward to support the (supremely dull) metaplot event that took down the bubble around Europe. If so, that is a big step towards being less dumb.


Oh god, the Metaplot.

7th Sea may have been one of the most 90’s games of all time. In theory, there shouldn’t have been a metaplot. The timeline was frozen at a specific year, and all supplements (until the very end) were considered simultaneous. In theory, this meant a blanks slate. In practice, it was so much sleight of hand, since it just meant the actual nature of the setting was revealed over many, many supplements.

DEEP SPOILERS FOLLOW – One of the secrets of the setting was the nature of magic. It turned out that three of the types of Sorcery available to players were actually secretly gifts from the dark powers which, as they were used, were opening the way to the Bad Things. This was revealed in a supplement, and it pretty aggressively flipped the bird to anyone who thought they were playing a cool, heroic sorcerer.

Similarly, the “Secret Masters of Everything” were revealed towards the very end. The setting was littered with this crap. And it was super annoying because it was usually at the expense of “less exciting” things like heroism, swashbuckling and intrigue – the stuff a lot of people were on board for in the first place,

I have no evidence which way the 2nd edition will jump on this, but I mostly just hope the fact that this kind of thing has become less popular means it will be quietly set aside.


Fact of life: the setting was more or less Europe for Dummies, arguably Europe for dumb americans. As such, it was composed entirely of (analogs for) England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Russian, and someplace with Vikings and Protestants. This is dumb, but a certain amount of it is necessary dumbness. Keeping things simple kept them accessible, and that’s critically important, so I forgive the broad strokes.

Where it falls down is in the area of uneven interest. Because these were such broad strokes, you could always dig down into them to find real stuff, like faith, trade, oppression and other toothy stuff. Things like this can be great game fodder if and only if someone cares enough to see what’s exciting about it. A lot of people don’t care if commerce in Theah is nonsensical, but the people who do care, care a LOT, and they are not thrown a bone.

This extends beyond issues and into nations. It was easy to go for dumb stereotypes (Vikings! Russian barbarians!) and the quality of the nations varied greatly depending on how interested the writer seemed in actually playing in them.^f2

This one worries me the most. I’m kind of delighted that they’ve added another nation to proxy for a little more of Eastern Europe, but I don’t yet know if it’ll be awesome or if it will be a gimmick. For obvious reasons, this gets even more worrisome when you consider that they might expand to cover Africa and America. Dumb shorthand is not super helpful in that space. But on the other hand, there are some smart people helping out with this project, and they will hopefully curb it.




There are other worries, but those are my big ones, and I am really hopeful that the game manages to escape this particular pain.



^f1: Ok, yes there are also proxies for China and a mash up of Islamic empires, but they are forcibly off to the side.

^f2: This is why Vodacce is probably the most playable nation as written. But there’s a weird anomaly around Avalon (elizabeth + arthurian myth + Fae incursion + random scotsmen) where there was obviously a lot of passionate interest in the material, but the result was a mess to actual play. Avalon was a place you left to go adventuring.

The Impact of Magic

potion-ballOk, given the pre-eminence of magic in D&D, it is very interesting to see the ways that this shapes the play experience. The most critical may not be th most obvious – timing. Action in D&D is set up in such a way that the default unit (a round) is the amount of time it takes to cast a spell.

That may seem counterintuitive at first. A round is a unit of time, after all. But stop and consider the many discussions of “what is a round” and how it is made abundantly clear that one round does not equate to one attack, but rather to a back and forth of blows, with a net effect measured by the attack. There is no such confusion regarding spellcasting. One round == One spell. ^f1

If you bear that in mind, a lot of the thinking in the 4e design makes a lot of sense. One of its clear drivers was to give every character something cool to do. They did not call all these things spells, but structurally, that’s what they were. Everyone gets to do a cool thing on their action!

It is hard to fault that sentiment, it genuinely is. I would go so far as to say that it was one of the parts of 4e that genuinely worked very well, so far as it went. Of course, it invited other problems with the list of potential actions spinning out of control (especially in conjunction with the way items were handled), but the core sentiment was solid.

And this is where 4e came up to the edge of something fascinating. By abstracting spells out into general actions, spells became the cool things your character can do. And specific things your character could do, rather than some open-ended loosey goosey thing. There were very loose limitations that meant you had cool thing you did all the time, cool things you sometimes whipped out, and the occasional big whammy. But taken as a whole, they were a picture of what your character could do.

By itself, that’s pretty awesome (something that the 4e-based Gamma World illustrated) but it broke down when it ran into the other pillar of D&D spells – resource management.

See, we sometimes talk about D&D as a resource management game, and we envision detailed inventory sheets, tracking the number of torches burned and feet of rope consumed. And while there may be some of that, what we’re really talking about is managing spells (and expendable magic items). This basic fact lies at the root of problems like the “5 minute workday” where adventurers rest up, take on the first encounter, burn through their best renewable resources (that is, best spells)” then rest up for another 8 hours and repeat.^f2

4e almost escaped that pattern, for good or ill. Setting aside daily abilities, you could adventure for a very long time, because each encounter (or scene, depending on how you looked at it) offering the opportunity to largely reset. With that in mind, it would not be hard to imagine that you could get by without constantly having daily abilities ready. Unfortunately, D&D also offered a highly tuned balancing system that emphasized building challenging fights, and things were tuned tightly enough that the daily’s made a pretty big difference. That (combined with potions) was enough to bring back the hoarding of resources. And on some level, that’s what the audience wants.

My big lesson from this is to view resource management as a preference, not something essential to our games. If it’s a requirement, then it’s a shackle, but if it’s something that might make for some cool, we have a lot more flexibility.

^f1:Ok, yes, there’s a qualifier for stuff like quickened spells and the like, but I don’t think any of that undercuts the premise. Arguably , it strengthens it, because it explicitly calls out that we don’t have such a think as a quickened stab. But it is a large part of why D&D does not really use any rules that would make daggers dangerous (as a shorthand for combat rules other crunchy fight games have tried).

^f2: Yes, obviously there are a lot of good solutions to this problem that don’t require much mechanical tweaking, but it’s a problem that comes up often enough to be a real thing.

The Importance of Spells

burning-bookI was riffing a bit on Twitter, and realized I had some stuff about spells I had to unpack.  This will probably take two posts, so  I want to open with the premise – spells are the most important part of D&D.

This is a rough assertion to make because D&D is so big and complicated that any assertion about one thing being the most important is certain to invite skepticism. And I’m cool with that – I don’t expect to persuade anyone who feels differently, but I do hope that I can help unpack a little bit of how I’m thinking about spells to help make some future thoughts make some more sense.

So let’s start with the basics – have you ever made your own D&D clone? I certainly have. It seems like a pretty simple task because at it’s heart, D&D is not that complicated in any of its many guises. It is well elaborated to cover a deep bench of edge cases, but the underlying rules have never been hard to wrap your head around.[1] That has meant that it has always seemed that they are easy to improve, which has lead to a vast universe of house rules and edition progression.

But an interesting thing happens when you start mucking around. Adding skills, tweaking classes, modifying combat – all of those things flow rather smoothly. But at some point you run up against the spell list (really any time from AD&D forward), and the rules change. The problem is that the spells are conceptually straightforward – they have levels and effects and they’re quite tidy. But the sheer volume of them is daunting. To discard the existing spell list in favor of something else seems insanely wasteful, especially since it’s so easy to just modify it – change some levels, add or subtract spells. The D&D spells are that load bearing wall that you can’t tear down, so you just work around it.

And that’s just as well, because if you rip them out, replacing them is hard. Almost every other fantasy game out there that has tried ends up burning a lot of page count for something largely forgettable. There have been exceptions[2] but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of games with “Energy Bolt” and “Persuade” spells that look strangely familiar.

Note, many of these games with boring spells have fascinating magic. Games like Rifts or (choose your favorite) offer pictures of magic that are exciting and compelling. Great, grabby stuff. To this day, the Ley Line Walker from Rifts is one of my favorite magical concepts. But these excellent wrappers were largely let down by the turd of a spell list they contained.

And that leads to real culmination of this – the D&D spell list is what makes D&D feel like D&D. Some of this is all about mechanics and familiar names, but there’s more to it than that. D&D has only the setting implied by its rules. Some of that setting is shaped by things like classes and equipment lists, but nothing defines the setting like the spells.

Not because of the bits of lore among them – Bigby just doesn’t matter that much – but because every single spell is a declaration that in this setting, this thing is possible. It is a thing that happens. That’s bold. And with the sheer volume of information in the spell list, it’s also very broad.

And that’s actually pretty great, because the spell is wonderfully well designed. Long before anyone had ever heard of “moves”, spells were discrete units of fiction and mechanics that established tone and could be strongly re-used. What’s more, they were built with the RPG equivalent of a handle, that allowed them to be easily slotted into various places.

Consider that a spell had an effect, but it also had a wrapper, and the wrapper contained information like who could cast it, when and how. Spell memorization is wrapper. Spell swapping is wrapper. Components are wrapper. And this is critical because the wrapper could be fiddled with infinitely without messing up the effect. The result is that spells could be used as a language of effects. Want to model an interesting trap? it explodes like a fireball. Want to give a monster cool powers? Voila, spell like abilities!

This is pretty damn robust, especially when the spells are cool. And as a result, it seems only natural that spells have become more and more central to what D&D is. It might have started as a fighting game with some magic, but there is a really strong case to be made that it has become something closer to a magic game with some fighting.

And that’s absolutely not a bad thing. But it is an interesting thing, and it’s had some implications. Implications that I’ll dig into in the next post.

  1. It could be argued that earlier editions seem more complicated because the rules were not necessarily well unified, and as a result the edge cases required a bit more work to keep track of, as they were often one-offs, but even with that, we’re not far past the complexity of explaining en passant.  ↩
  2. Rolemaster is my go to example for this, but it accomplished this by virtue of producing a staggeringly HUGE amount of text to provide its vision of magic. Most other successes have either done a similar amount of work, or have done so by pursuing entirely different approaches to magic (such as Ars Magica).  ↩