Monthly Archives: December 2009

Magic Item Thoughts

I’m not a huge fan of the level of itemization in 4e. The process of filling in “slots” it both a bit too mechanical and a bit too bookkeeping-heavy for me. Thematically, I’m a much bigger fan of fewer items, but with more punch and more story.

Curiously, this is harder than it seems. You can handle the gross balance easily enough by just removing magic item bonuses entirely in favor of an automatic bonus to, well, everything (attack, damage, defenses) of +1 at 1st level and increase it by +1 at levels 6, 11, 16, 21 and 26. Call it a “Heroic” bonus, the benefit of being named characters. This pretty much guarantees the characters stay balanced in terms of numbers, but it doesn’t solve the entire problem.

See, it also strips the character of a wide range of extra abilities, as many as 15 or so. Some may be minor or passive, and there are limits on how many can be used in a given scene, but that’s a LOT of options (for better or for worse).

The easiest way to address it mechanically is to give more feats – if you give the character a feat at every level, that’s about as many extra feats over the course of their career as they have magic item slots. This is a little out of whack since the distribution is over time, but since you can synergize with your existing feats, I feel like that comes out in the wash.[1]

There are two downsides to that approach: First, it wreaks havoc with the character builder software, and second, it overlooks the simple fact that magic items are really cool. We WANT to have a sword whose blade flickers with flame – it’s just that we don’t want it to be lame.

The simplest solution is to use the cool magic item rules, and only hand out artifacts. Yes, artifacts used to mean items of earth-shaking, game changing power, but in 4e they really mean “Magic items that aren’t boring”. They’re potent, sure, but nowhere near as much so as previous editions, and they have numerous interesting (and play-driving) checks in place to make them a practical inclusion in your game.

Now, I can sense the hesitation. Making heavy use of artifacts has historically been a shorthand for monty haul style play, and in the classic usage, a single artifact can really dominate a game. Plus, can you really *trust* players with that kind of power?

To that I can only say: embrace the ways that 4e has changed the game. More than any edition of D&D, this is the story of YOUR GROUP – not Elminster or Bigby or Raistlin or Drizzt – YOU. Own it. If something looks like it’s cool or interesting, then it should end up in your player’s hands, not someplace where they can watch it from a distance (or worse, just hear about it). Previous versions of the game have (sometimes unintentionally) told you that you weren’t cool enough for the things that regularly happened in novels. 4E makes it clear that opinion should be stuck where the sun don’t shine.

So just think about it for a minute – a game where every magic item is an artifact.[2] Think what that says and does for the world, how rich it demands that things be. Power comes intertwined with stories and people, and that’s as it should be.[3]

Anyway, I personally favor using all 3 (inherent bonuses, extra feats and artifacts-only) if I’m stickng to the core rules. A more complicated (but maybe more rewarding) approach is to construct item to grow with the player (and use more than one slot) but that’s a while other post in its own right.

Happy new year, folks.

1 – This wasn’t really an option when the game started, but now that it’s mature enough (and DDI makes it easy to track) there are now enough feats that this sort of option is actually useful rather than just useful on paper.

2 – This includes minor items. One nice upshot of this is that you can get a little bit old school and encourage clever use of items in strange places. A bottle that’s always full of water is a trivial item in terms of power level, but absolutely drips with story potential that is best realized when it’s a one-of-a-kind (or one of a set – sets work too) item.

3 – If you take this route, there’s no reason you can’t use regular magic items, at least as a starting point. The trick is to remember that when you want to use an item, you need to think about what it means if this it “THE flaming sword” not “A flaming sword”. Look at the Adventurer’s Vault products for inspiration – they’re full of neat stories about how an item came to be, but they tend to end with “and now people make copies of that” which kind of saps the juice from it. Take those backstories and bring them to life, and suddenly they’re a resource for your game, not just clever color.

Tastes Like Chicken

We have a hard time handling well worn ideas.

If an idea was once good, but it’s taken a turn off the road an into the weeds, we often describe it as having “jumped the shark“. The popularity of that term means it also is used in situatiosn where an idea has been used so much that we’re now bored with it, and I find that a clumsy conflation of ideas.

After a certain point, ideas become cliche and familiarity breeds contempt, but that’s a very steep precipice, and lots of ideas are overused without quite reaching that point. This is especially true of ideas with varying degrees of exposure – I may have grown tired of Chthulu, but there are plenty of others who barely known the name.

I think that it’s all about chicken breasts.

If you spend any amount of time cooking, especially if you pursue the self-taught-American-bachelor school of cooking, you will use a LOT of chicken breasts. They’re reasonably priced, they incredibly versatile, and they’re easy to do well. They offer a depth of options for the beginner while still staying useful for the expert.

But sooner or later, you will have had enough, and that’s when it becomes interesting. It’s not that you start hating chicken breasts, or even that you stop using them entirely – sometimes they’re on sale, or they’re the only thing in the house or you’re in a hurry – but they just stop being something on your go-to list. If you see them on a menu, it’ll take something really interesting to catch your eye. When you’re planning shopping, you think about other meats.

That’s all well and good, but what’s so interesting to me is that when you set aside chicken breasts, you do so with respect. You would never suggest a new cook forgo using chicken breasts as he learns, nor would you suggest they’re not a worthy food.

And that’s where you see the interesting divergence from geeks. We all have our chicken breasts – maybe they’re ninjas or zombies or tentacled horrors but whatever form they take, we really stink at leaving them behind gracefully.

It’s fun to think about why this is. Maybe it’s a function of the fact that cooking takes physical effort or produces a physical result that can be measured. Maybe it’s part of that ingrained geek insecurity. Maybe it’s aliens. I doubt we’ll ever know, and that’s ok. Life needs mysteries.

But it also needs a little more respect for other people’s fun, and chicken breasts is now my codeword to remind myself of that. It’s a cue to remind myself that someone else’s passion about something I have discarded does not suggest inferiority or poor judgment. It asks me to think abut why I thought this was a good idea once too, and to consider that maybe the idea is not the thing that’s changed.

Or barring that, it’s just a reminder to make chicken salad.

More Business of GMing

When I brought up the parallels between management and GMing the other day, one particularly valid point was brought up in the comments. I’d suggested that there are enough parallels that there is probably useful GMing insight to be found in the world of management/leadership literature (at least in part because so much more thought has been put into it).

I’ll stand by that position, but I must acknowledge the very, very important caveat that was raised: most of that literature really, really sucks. Seriously. For every good book on the topic there are five crappy ones, and five more crappy ones which are just rehashing the first crappy ones. So with that in mind let me step back a little bit to discuss what’s useful and what isn’t.

First and foremost, I’m talking about leadership. This comes in many forms, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means. Most notably, it is often conflated with authority because the hope is that the person with authority has the qualities of leadership. Certainly, the person with authority will tend to believe they have those qualities – after all, who is going to tell them differently?

But authority is a funny thing. In all but the crudest of cases, it depends on a certain level of buy-in by all participants, and the person further down the ladder can often just say “Screw this, I’m quitting”. This gets muddy when you start talking about big things, like society and laws, but for most of our day to day activities, these are tradeoffs we make, usually for something we want. We want a paycheck, so we give our boss authority. We want to perform on stage, so we give the director authority. We want to fly in a plane, so we give the airlines authority.

That last illustrates an important point. Just because a deal is being made doesn’t mean it’s always a very good deal. The more you want or need the thing you’re getting, the more authority you’re likely to concede.

And that brings us back to gaming, and GM authority. You want to play a game, sure, but there are lots of games and maybe even lots of other potential GMs. A given GM may have a lot to offer, but in the grand scheme of things it’s only so much. As such, any authority the GM has or seems to have is extremely tenuous (at best) and rests upon his players finding it more fun to grant him that authority than it is to go read a book.[1]

And that brings us back to management disciplines and leadership. It is rare that books actually call this out (because it is uncomfortable for leaders to acknowledge it) but there is an entire strata of advice and literature that is more or less dedicated to the question of how to lead when you have no authority. This is a great strata because it puts a lot of emphasis on what the people you lead want and need, and how your job is to really help them excel and make everything work. These are great lessons for a GM to take.

In the modern business world, most of that strata is labeled “Project Management”. You probably have some at your company, but if you’ve never stopped to consider their job, it is this: to get groups of people to get stuff done despite having no power (authority) to insist they do so. They can wheedle or cajole. They can lead or inspire. They can bully or sulk. They might do all of these things and more, depending on how good or bad they are.

Sound familiar, GMs?

Now, the catch is that the good to crap ratio is even more skewed in project management than it is in regular management. I can wholeheartedly recommend Scott Berkun’s “Making Things Happen” (formerly “The Art of Project Management”) but after that I start coming up dry. There’s some interesting stuff in the arena of agile software development (Paul Tevis has raised some interesting comparisons between his gaming and scrum development) but I worry that’s a bit too specialized.

Not to say there’s nothing to use. Even the bad books have some fun tools – PM’s have a lot of tools (some good, some bad) for representing complex sets of actors and actions, some of which are in parallels, others of which are sequential. Most RPG designs still consider the flowchart to be cutting edge technology, but project management has embraced a host of tools (most famously the gantt chart) to try to express these complex relationships visually.

This is worth bearing in mind because a lot of what they’re tracking bears structural similarities to good adventure design. Imagine a project plan/gantt chart of a set of NPCs in a town and what they’re up to. It’s a useful overview, but the introduction of the players is going to mess things up, just like real life events constantly require project plans to be revised. Project management is not just about making those plans, it’s about revising those plans when things go off the rails.

Again, sound familiar?

Not to say that Project Management is the only useful discipline out there. Leadership and planning are necessary in many fields, not just business. The trick is that if you expect it to be useful for gaming, you need to find where it’s similar (and where it’s different) and work to understand how to apply those strengths.

1 – This is a bit of a simplification. Social interaction, bullying, secondary concerns and such can all complicate this, but if that’s what’s going on, it’s not about the game or the hobby, it’s about that specific group.

The Fate of my Library

Someday we will be able to have conversations about the kindle and other readers without someone bring in up the smell of books. Seriously. I love to read. Everyone I know who has gotten a kindle or a similar device loves to read. We are all book lovers. But all this talk about touch and smell is starting to sound like a fetish community.

My own understanding of the Kindle was clinched the other day when I was grabbing my bag to go out. Normally I’d bring my kindle, but I was loaning it to my wife, so I needed to pack a book, just in case.[1] Of course, I couldn’t pack just one, because one might get finished, or might not be quite the right book. So there I am, tossing a pair of hardcovers[2] into my bag and I have to fight off a flash of annoyance at how cumbersome this is. I have grown so accustomed to the ease of throwing dozens of books in my bag at once without any weight or hassle that the alternative seems awkward.

This kind of cleared up something for me. I have a decent-sized library of well loved books. We occasionally try to cut it down to reclaim some space, but we rarely do more than trim the edges. I am attached to the books, and I have often wondered about their future, especially now that my son is has entered the picture. How do I square these separate ideas of a love of ebooks and a love of paper?

The answer, as it turns out, is a lot simpler than I’d thought. It all comes down to why I keep books.

For the vast majority of them, the answer is simple: because I might want to read them again someday, or perhaps to look something up in them. My habits were established in the pre-amazon era[3], where your only chance of finding an out-of-print book was if you got lucky enough at a used bookstore. That meant if I found something like a copy of “The Well Favored Man” that I needed to grab it and hoard it, because the odds of my finding it again were pretty damn slim.

The next biggest reason, and this overlaps some with the first, is so I can loan them out. However, I am an old-school cynic on the subject of loaning books, and any book that’s been loaned should be treated as lost. This is why I actually own multiple copies of certain books I consider particularly loan-worthy.

The far smaller fraction are the books that have some value in and of themselves. Some might merely be well-loved stories. Others might be gifts. Some might be signed, or be particularly lovely editions. These are books which, even if I never read them again, I cherish.

Someday, my library is going to be almost entirely composed of that last category. It’s possible that the transition won’t really happen in my lifetime, but I look at the speed of change in general, and I’m betting 10-20 years. I consider this more or less inevitable, but I also find it informative. The trick is that with my understanding of why I keep books, I can clearly look at what ebooks need to do if they’ll supplant my existing categories.

To do that, ebooks need to be reliable, ubiquitous, and transferable. In practice, that means that:

  • I need to be able to own the file enough to choose how to back up and protect it, and I need to be able to find it when I go looking.
  • I need content to be available in electronic format.
  • I need to be able to loan and give ebooks.

Unsurprisingly, DRM is the biggest barrier to these needs, followed slightly by the simple logistical problem of getting books converted to electronic form. DRM (and the perfidious idea that I am “licensing” the material) is a barrier to use that offers me no benefits in return[4]. Sure, there are other barriers – the cost of entry is too high, the technology of the readers is still clunky at best, the available content is limited and the various formats muddle the waters even further – but those are all problems that can do nothing but diminish. The hardware and technology will eventually reach a point where the price and convenience are comparable with (or better than) a printed book.[5]

But it’s all for nothing if the content is still stuck in the mud. The kindle give an interesting taste of what ubiquitous content might look like: you can access your library on your kindle, your phone or on your computer. That’s pretty fantastic, and that’s still a closed system; imagine if it was opened up further.

Of course, this might also have a transformative effect on the books themselves, but that’s another topic for another time.

1 – This idea, that you should always pack a book just in case, is one that may not be instinctive to everyone, but I think most readers get it.

2 – “Parking Lot Rules” (a parenting book) and “Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate”

3 – I cite Amazon here, and not print on demand or e-distribution for a simple reason. While someday we will probably have all this content available on demand, that’s not the case for the near term. Amazon, in contrast, is here now, and it has made exploratory trips to the used bookstore unnecessary because the used bookseller with the book you need is right there. I miss that sense of exploration and discovery, sure, but I
don’t miss the inconvenience and frustration.

4 – I completely understand the need for creators to get paid, but that not what DRM does right now. Consider book loaning and gifting – Amazon controls all kindle content, and there are few technical challenges that should keep me from being able to say “Take this book off my kindle and send it to my dad’s kindle”, much the same way I could hand him the physical book after I finished reading it. If they had such a feature, they might be able to say “We need DRM to protect ourselves, but look how we also use the software to improve your experience” and they’d at least have a leg to stand on. Instead, DRM is an attempt to erect a barrier against change that is doomed since it’s a barrier built on the very source of the change itself. A wall built on a foundation of sand will stand longer than one built on a foundation of bits.

5 – This is the “Bathtub Test”. Right now, one of the smug anti-ereader talking points is how much you lose if you drop it in the tub. It’s a fair cop, especially with readers costing what they do now. But there is a cost of replacing a book you drop in the tub too, sometimes a non-trivial one, since you are losing the artifact and the content (with an ereader, you lose only the artifact so long as you’ve backed up the content). If ereaders get cheap enough or if e-content gets ubiquitous enough, that gap may narrow or even invert.

It’s Christmas

So even if you don’t celebrate, take advantage of the season if you can, and go play something with people you love. I have a little kid to expose to wrapping paper, and I’m looking forward to the decorative tornado to follow.

The Business of GMing

I find a lot of interesting parallels between GMing and Management. Not just in terms of how there are similarities between them, but also in terms of how people perceive them.

Work any amount of time in a technical field and you’ll discover that there’s a reason that people will keep reading Dilbert no matter how often it re-tells the same joke. Management just gets in the way of people doing what they should be doing, after all, and their motives are highly suspect since their priorities are not the same as the engineer’s. Management doesn’t get it, and they make the wrong technical decisions because they are not technical, and things would work much, much better if these decisions could be made by technical people because they’re not mired in this bullshit.

For a lot of people, this accurately reflects their experience. They’ve had the kind of management that inspires pointy-haired-boss stories, and as a result, that is what they expect from management. Statements to the contrary, talk of things like leadership or teamwork, are obviously just buzzwords used to manipulate those who don’t know any better.


Some people have had good managers. Bosses who step up for them, communicate when appropriate, and who do all the things to help make sure that their work is not just technically correct, but meaningful. They make sure shit gets done, and even when they push you, you get to the other end and thank them for it. They nurture their employees, and push them further than they’d push themselves. They bring people together in ways that allow the word “synergy” to be used without irony. It’s unhip to say it, but they lead, and in doing so they demonstrate that leadership is something much more nuanced than standing in front and shouting orders.

People who have had these managers want to repeat the experience, and they chafe hard under managers who don’t live up to this example. But they chafe even harder when no on is even trying to do these things because they’re just stupid management stuff. But for all this, the first group is likely to think the second group is delusional, or are sheep who aren’t smart enough to know they’re being misled (and the second group tend to look at the first like they’re talking nonsense).

You can imagine how well that goes.

But I mention this because the same can be said of people’s experience with GMs. Some have had nothing but pointy-haired-GM experiences, while others have had fantastic GMs. As with management, each group tends to assume that this is how the world works, and looks down their noses at the other people.

You can probably imagine how well that goes too.

Now, I like this parallel. Like GMing, management is an inexact science, and an IMMENSE amount of work and thought has gone into it. There are levels and types of management that require different ideas and nuances for how to do things right (a project manager is different than the manager of an autonomous team is different than the day manager in a call center) but there are still certain underlying ideas (like, say, TALK to people) that emerge throughout. This parallels GMing nicely, since running PTA is different than running D&D is different than running a LARP.

Now, we don’t have the language to talk about GMing the way people can talk about management, at least not yet. That makes a lot of things pretty rough, but I am finding myself thinking that it might be worth turning an eye towards business literature to help clarify the distinctions that we carry around, but don’t communicate.

Pendragon Ninjas

So, there was apparently a bit of a (possibly engineered) storm over on the boards yesterday about a 4E GM saying that players couldn’t play Dragonborn in his game. This was waved around as an example of totalitarian GMing, and the snippets I picked up were enough to convince me to stay the hell away from the conversation, but it’s an interesting question, all the same.

I have exactly no information about the original situation, but I can conceive of a few scenarios which I would interpret very differently. On one hand you have a GM who simply does not like the race, and is unwilling to talk about it. That’s not great – ‘I don’t wanna, and I won’t talk about it because I’m DM!’ is pretty lame on the face of it.

On the other hand, if the DM had said “We’re playing a game in an established setting (like Middle Earth). There aren’t any dragonborn in the setting, so they’re not a viable player choice” that’s not such an unreasonable position,[1] Especially if the GM is willing to discuss things.

I call this a Pendragon Ninja problem[2] because that’s probably the most succinct way to illustrate the disconnect, as in:
Bob: I’m running Pendragon. Who’s interested?
Tom: Oh, yeah! I want to play a ninja!

I like this example because the problem is obvious (while the Dragonborn one is potentially muddled), which makes it easy to move on to the potential solutions.

First off, a lot of GMs will be comfortable just saying “No” to a request like this. I won’t come out an endorse this because I’m one of those guys who likes to talk things out, but sometimes it really is the right answer, especially if you know your players well enough to know that Tom is taking a piss or will be equally enthusiastic about his next idea. The failure of advice will always be that you know your group best, so if you’re really comfortable just saying no, then go forth and rock on. But if you’re not, there are a few other approaches.

First, try to figure out what about the idea appeals to them. For Tom, is it that he wants to play an outsider? A sneaky character? An assassin? It’s possible that he could play a character of that type that’s still within the bounds of the premise. Playing a saracen might capture the outsider vibe, playing a knight with “off the books” skills might capture the sneaky/assasin part. Try to find the things that make the idea cool to Tom and see if you can pitch ideas that capture those elements.

Of course, that won’t always work. Tom might just really be in it for the black pajamas and shuriken. In that case, ask yourself if the setting can deal with the idea as an exception – is it possible this is the only one in the world, so to speak. This can be easier to justify in magical games as the character is form another world or era, transported here through a freak accident, but you can usually find some way to make it work. Some GM’s buck as this idea as violating the premise, but consider that a lot of fiction makes good use of these fish out of water ideas, and it’s not unreasonable for players to seize upon them.

One catch is that it makes the fish out of water element front and center on the character. The lone ninja in the arthurian court is count to stand out as FOREIGN and DIFFERENT and a lot of interactions will center on that difference, and that may not be what the player is interested in. Perhaps even more importantly, such a character can easily become the lynchpin of a game unless you are careful in your handling of it. Maybe that’s a great idea for your group, but if Tom is not the guy you want to hang the game off of, then you need to be careful to keep it from being the adventures of a Ninja in King Arthur’s Court.

So, that’s nuance, and that doesn’t always fly. Tom may not want to have to deal with those issues – he just wants to have cool fights with ninja weapons, and Bob is having trouble explaining to him that these aren’t anime fights, and ninja vs. knight may not go exactly the way he imagines. So Bob is pretty much down to three options.

First, he can just say “no”. He’s made a good faith effort to accommodate Tom, but it’s just not working. No harm, no foul, just try something else.[3]

Second, he might suggest that Tom would not enjoy the game. He really should try saying “no” before jumping to this, but after a few no’s, this might be the only options.

Third, he could consider changing the game. Depending upon what excites Bob about running pendragon, he might be able to switch to a game like Legend of the Five Rings or Blossoms Are Falling and keep everyone happy. This is not a trivial consideration though: the amount of work Bob will need to do to shift gears is an order of magnitude greater than what it would take for Tom to tweak his character. More importantly, if this idea doesn’t excite Bob, then it’s a bad idea. If the GM isn’t excited about the game, then it’s very near DOA.[4]

There are a lot of issues that run through this topic, ones of player respect, GM empowerment, theme protection and god knows what else. The good news is that the theory is more convoluted than the reality. As a hypothetical problem, this can be daunting, but as an actual problem you’re talking to your friend about? You’ll be amazed how easily it clears up.

1 – 4e introduces another layer to this since the objection (and the desire t play a Dragonborn) may have been entirely mechanical. Thankfully, 4e also provides excellent tools for dealign with this, since it’s trivial to re-skin the race. Thus, for example, if the DM objected to the Dragonborn’s breath weapon as unbalanced, he could include Dragonborn, but use the Goliath or Hobgoblin racial modifiers to represent them mechanically. Alternately, if the player explicitly wants the mechanic, it would be possible to make the character nominally a member of another race but use the Dragonborn abilities, possibly reskinned as a war shout or magical ability.

2 – Pendragon, if you’re not familiar with it, is a game that is explicitly about playing ladies & knights in the Arthurian period. There’s some wiggle room around that, but it’s really all about ladies & knights.

3 – Yes, I know this is terrible. No is such a negative, unfriendly, non-communal word. A lot of us are geeks, and we want everyone to get along, and we don’t like drawing hard lines as a result. I sympathize, I really and truly do, but at some point you need to put on your big girl panties and do it. You’ll be amazed to discover that it does not actually end in tears and door slamming most of the time.

4 – This is actually a somewhat contentious point. I’m assuming in this case that we’re talking about very traditional games where the GM puts in a lot of work to make the game happen. Setting aside the issue of authority within the game, that raises the question of how much the GM can reasonably demand. Some people feel that the extra work entails a bit more weight to his opinions, while others seek something more egalitarian. This gets further muddled when you have groups with multiple GMs, since the decision is no longer between “Game or not game” but between “My game vs. his game” and at that point it ends up looking like…. well, I suspect you can imagine it.


There’s a concept that I don’t really have a word for, but that lies at the heart of a lot of gaming (and writing). I don’t see it talked about much, I think because it’s a little bit too big to see. It’s such an essential part of making anything happen that it’s easy to look. For lack of a better word, I’m going to call it “expectation” but that does not quite convey the whole of the idea, but let me drill into it a bit.

The core of it is this: people have a natural sense of what should happen next. We’re not all totally in tune on it at all times, but there’s a lot of commonality in our take on things. This sense is an essential part of storytelling because stories depend on violating that expectation. Something must take a turn away from the way things are supposed to go, or else there wil be no story, just a logical series of events. This expectation is also essential for great things like humor and irony, since they hinge upon the friction between that expectation and what actually happens.

This expectation is also essential to the mechanics of most roleplaying systems. More than anything, it is essential to the decisions around when to roll the dice and when not to roll the dice. A player describes what his character is doing, and the GM consults his internal expectation – if a clear outcome suggests itself, then there’s no need to consult the dice. If there’s uncertainty, then the dice might be turned to for an answer.

This tends to happen kind of naturally – it’s just the process that we go with, but it can be very interesting to stop and think about this step since so much hinges on it. Enjoyment of play can hinge on the players and GM having similar expectations – if they don’t, then it is easy for the other party’s decision to seem capricious or even malicious. Even more, the mechanics of almost every game out there depend in large part on this expectation.


This is a hard space to call out mechanically. If you stop and think too much about it you run into the same problems you have when everyone stops and negotiates potential consequences of a scene. It might be very thorough, but it breaks flow pretty hard.

Instead, it is merely something to keep in mind as you run. It may be the single most important tool in your arsenal for deciding when not to engage the system. It’s easy to fall into the habit of trusting the rules to provide the cues for when to use the system – if there’s a rule, then you should use it right? That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but it’s not a reliable yardstick for when it will be fun to bust out the dice versus when it’s smarter to just keep things moving.

If, instead, you can keep a firm grasp on your sense of what should happen next, then it’s much easier to tell when to turn to the dice. You can trust your own sense of uncertainty, and you can focus on those situations where you want things to take a drastic left turn. That ability to select when to engage the system helps make sure that you do it when it matters, and it’s amazing how many headaches you can save yourself.

The vast majority of problems that come from the dice going askew are rooted in a misjudgment before the roll, such as when a failed roll will result in an undesirable outcome. It’s possible to to try to wiggle out of such a roll, but it’s easier still to not make the roll in the first place. If only one outcome is tolerable, then that speaks directly to your expectations for the roll and the action – just go with what you expect, and save the dice for sometime they’ll actually help.

Monday – 5 Fun Stops

I am not yet used to this vacation thing, and I’m posting this late, so I’ll just go fro the cheesiest of copouts – the list post. To be a little fair, I’ll stay within the bounds of cool things for monday and use today to rattle off 5 sites that might be worth visiting. I might never have gotten around to doing a full post on any of them, but they rattle around in my mind, and I want to get them out there.

1. Knowledge Games – This is another one from Dave Gray, who writes a lot of really interesting stuff about the presentation of information and the nature of the book. This particular project is all about taking game thinking and applying it to business situations. Like all good experiments, the results are hit or miss, but it’s a fantastic perspective on the nature of games, and worth checking out.

2. Cool Tools and Holycool get treated as one topic. Both are basically just blogs of neat stuff. Banal, I know, but it’s really, really neat stuff, and I like stuff!

3. Tumblr – It’s a free microblogging site, which is a fancy way to say it’s ideally suited for posts that are longer than twitter but shorter than a full bore post. Thing is, the clean interface and the robust handling of media (it imbeds photos and clips and such very smoothly) have resulted in a lot of people starting to look at it as an option for full time, hassle free blogging. Even people with fulltime blogs often keep a tumblr blog as a place to dump things that don’t really merit a full post, but are still worth capturing.

4. Peter Bregman is a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, and most of what he does is pretty much summed up right there except, well, he’s actually really good. He doesn’t write a lot, but his hit rate for posts I save for later reading is very high.

5. Quest for Fun is the blog of the Black Diamond Game Store in Concord, CA. It’s interesting and informative, sure, but it’s especially noteworthy because the owner of the shop really goes out of his way to provide an eyes on the ground view of how things work in the game industry form his perspective. He recently did a series of graphs breaking down sales by brand in various categories (RPGs, games & minis) which were wuite informative.

ReUsing Relationship Maps

Man, ok, time to change gears, if only for my sanity. As fun as it has been to delve into Dragon Age, that’s some thinky stuff, and my brain is starting to smoke a bit, so let me shift gears a bit. As a warning, there are some very light spoilers for the 4th and 5th season of Supernatural below – probably not enough to be a real problem, but you’ve been warned.

By now, a lot of people have learned about the advantages of using relationship maps (r-maps) as a useful tool for keeping track of characters and groups in a game, and as a source of inspiration. For example:

It’s benefits are, hopefully, pretty obvious. Organizing the information visually makes it easy for me to ask all the right questions when I want to do something in the setting, like “Who will it impact? What effects will that have? If I do something bad HERE what happens THERE? If I add a new element over here, what should I connect it to and how?” Certainly, I could track all this information in lists or notes, but the visual component makes it much easier for me to grasp the interactions between elements.

This is all well and good, but it’s not actually what was on my mind. See, I’m a big fan of the television show Supernatural. It’s got monster hunting and rock and roll and all that, but it’s also got some really potent relationships between the characters. This took an interesting turn in recent seasons where it turned out that the larger conflict of the story was pretty much a mirror of the personal conflicts between the characters.

It’s a little heavy-handed (but appropriate to the series) as it’s done, but the idea is a pretty potent one, and one use of relationship maps is that they make it very easy to do – all you need to do is scrub the names and keep the relationships. So I can take the previous R-Map and tweak it to represent the various conspiracies at work in the world.

(Doctor/Patient needed to be tweaked, but it wasn’t hard to come up with an equivalent)

Obviously, this is a pretty simple example, but the point is that it’s one more thing that relationship maps can be useful for.