Monthly Archives: May 2010

The New Pitch

So, the new game’s backdrop has been pitched and finalized. It may be a function of getting older, but I enjoy pre-play (as a social activity, not solo) much more these days, partly because it’s an opportunity to bounce off the creativity of sharp people. When I was younger it was all about showing off the shiny things I’d made through play, and since I made pretty good things, that worked out ok. But now? I don’t see as much satisfaction in that – I like the surprises that come out of brainstorming.

I started with a few seeds on the table: Feng Shui as Conspiracy, D&D without D&D, Some variant on Hunter or Mage and Amber, and we kicked them around for a while. The conspiratorial angle appealed, but the fear was Feng Shui was too much. More chewing ensued, and rehashing it all would probably not be terribly exciting, so I’ll skip to the end: We settled on Cold War (1980s) minimal supers.

Premise is this. There are some number of really powerful supers out there, and – in America at least – they are by and large kept in boxes, controlled n some fashion, and only released when absolutely necessary (yes, the nuclear weapon analogy is intentional) and one or more teams of “Handlers” are responsible for looking into situations and ultimately for making the call on the ground whether or not to hit the button. The handlers have (or may have) low grade super powers – not enough to put them in a box, but enough to make them useful for field work and possibly enough to make them useful for dealing with the folks in the boxes.

I expect more details will get fleshed out over chargen (yes, TWO sessions of preplay! Madness!) but a few points established so far:

  • The handler team definitely works for the US. We discussed a Planetary/Global Frequency sort of vibe, but since we’d gravitated to the Cold War, we wanted to stick with that.
  • Majority of the Handler team must agree to deploy “Mark”
  • The people in boxes are designated “Mark I”, “Mark II” and so on, so the handler colloquially refer to them as “Mark”
  • The handler team may have a designated Mark, or may be more general purpose. Undecided.
  • The Marks are people and even if not known now, they _can_ be known.
  • Other handler teams exist. Relationships TBD.
  • How other powers handle their Marks is an open question.
  • Origin of the Marks and powers intentionally hazy, possibly TBD in play. WWII seems an obvious culprit.

I have a few mindmaps running in my notebook of things that MIGHT be true, but nothing concrete yet – I want to leave things flexible until chargen finishes. In the meantime, I may be hitting Netflix for come good Cold War era Spy flicks. It’s all still early yet, but I like this phase of things. All potential.

Tiers of Damage

I’ve talked a little bit about tiers of ability in the past, but I was reading some old copies of Mage (the comic, not the RPG) this weekend and it got me thinking about handling them for super powers, or at least for toughness and damage type. The idea was inspirec by this: the hero of Mage is basically invulnerable – there are some caveats to it, but it really boils down to that – but he ends up getting severely injured when one of the bad guys manages to catch him off guard and nail him with his poisonous bone spur.

This ends up being a big plot point, life and death, yadda yadda yadda, but it also raises an interesting question of dramatic physics. It’s a long-standing game idea that there’s damage and then there’s extra-damage. in the World of Darkness it’s “aggravated damage”[1] but the idea is something you see in a lot of supers games. Bullets bounce harmlessly off the hero but when bad guys throw bolts of energy around it may be enough to actually bring some pain. Of course, it probably won’t be enough, but there might be some things that are badass enough to do the damage.

Now, a lot of games will handle this with straight-up math. Invulnerability 7 vs. energy blast 4 works out badly for the energy blast. But me, I’m lazy, so I throw this back into a tiered approach, and it all really breaks down into three tiers: Normal, exceptional and named.[2] Let’s take the idea of damage here. Normal damage is everything you might normally think of – guns, knives, car crashes and so on. Exceptional damage might be anything from flamethrowers to lasers to energy blasts to vorpal swords. Named damage is the category that either makes immediate sense or seems a little odd.

Assuming you find it odd, comic books are awash in excellent examples of this: compare superman’s heat vision (exceptional) with Darkseid’s Omega Beams (Names). Yes, in the math of comics, the omega beams are more powerful, but the important difference is that the Omega Beams are something that’s talked about as their own things. SImilarly, compare a magic sword with Excalibur.

On the flip side, you can establish resistances along the same lines. Speaking broadly, a character might be resistant to normal damage, Exceptional damage or Named damage. THis ends up working interestingly depending on ho you handle the damage tiering. The normal assumption is that higher tiers do more damage, but that’s not necessary. A laser beam is not going to make you _more_ dead than a bullet, but

Now, by itself, this isn’t that useful except in the broadest of strokes, so it need another layer of tweaking, which breaks things into categories. Impact, fire, poison or whatever. The exact granularity of the categories is a function of the needs of the game. A concrete list is an option, but it’s also easy to do this in an ad hoc fashion. To come back to the Mage example, you have a hero who is resistant to normal and exceptional damage, but the bad guy has one special “named” attack.

This is still only part of an idea, but I wanted to lay it out there because I feel like this is the edge of something that may yet fall into place.

1 – Invoking this reveals another tier – non-lethal damage. It’s not really a part of this model because it’s something of a one-off, but it’s easy enough to make this a 4-step model.

2 – There’s some unintentional overlap with the Amber DRPG item system here – it uses a similar tiered approach, and it’s pretty elegant (if abusable, in its existing form) so its one of those things that’s always rattling around in my head. Its biggest flaw is that it breaks its own rules in implementation, introducing further tiers to make NPCs more awesome.

Why Gamers Can Rule The World

I enjoy the webcomic xkcd, but it occasionally gets on my nerves with its nerd one-upmanship. This is not a huge deal because, hey, it’s a nerd comic, you need to expect a certain amount of that. But there was a math uber alles one that sort of stuck in my craw for a while which I’ve now found peace with.

See, the bit I’d never realized[1] (and which I don’t know if even the author has thought about) is that there’s something not shown here, something which is only implied but which puts this in context. There’s one other person here, one we’re not seeing a little stick figure of, and that’s the storyteller. That may seem a hokey term, so feel free to swap in writer or artist or whatever you like, but I’ll stick with storyteller because I think that speaks to the heart of it: someone took this stuff, and made it say something.

None of this is meant as a sleight against any particular field. Storytelling is as much a part of math as it is cooking, politics or any other endeavor. None of them work without creating stories. Once you get past the abstracts and start talking about how an individual person understands things, that understanding takes the form of stories. Cause an effect is a story. The process for making things is a story. These stories may be boring or short, and they may violate every dramatic rule that we like to apply to fiction, but whatever form they take, they’re how we see the world because we cannot actually perceive truth.[2]

Marketers, politicians and people in power know this, and have for a good long time. When you hear someone talking about spin or controlling the narrative, they’re talking about the importance of stories. They’re looking at a pile of stuff and trying to figure out how to turn it into a story that is compelling enough for people to buy into yet which serves their interests. Other people will look at the stuff and create different stories. Once these stories are out in the wild, they’ll fight among themselves until one becomes ‘true’. Even if some people still seek to look at the stuff, for most people the story is all that’s going to matter.

There are examples of this everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Get up, walk around and look at a dozen things and tell yourself about them. Look at what you tell yourself, and stop and consider how much of that is a story. And here we come to the tough part.

As overwhelmingly powerful as this idea is, its a very difficult one to discuss in the wild. While almost anything can be used as evidence of it, actually doing so is going to risk the wrath of people who have bought that particular story.[3] The topic then becomes about the particular story rather than stories in general, and that’s useless. So I’m going to risk it here, but be warned that I don’t care much about the specific stories except as illustration.

As I write this, there’s a bunch of oil spilling out of a pipe from an exploded oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While people are rushing to deal with the physical problems this represents, there is currently a kung-fu fight of epic proportions over the narrative of what all this means. BP, the company leasing the rig and the public face on this, wants the narrative to be about how responsive they’ve been and how they’ve kept this under control. Proponents of offshore drilling want to come up with a story that acknowledges this as bad but not something to reflect on offshore drilling in general. Opponents of offshore drilling want this story to be apocalyptic.

None of this even touches on smaller stories, like whose fault it is, or whether liberal commandos blew it up to discredit Obama’s opening of offshore drilling.[4] Look at the responses from the gulf Governors, most of which are prepared for disaster, one of which is insisting nothing’s wrong. Neither group can say they know what will happen, but each is positioning itself for the story they think is coming.

That’s the real trick. You never can see the story mid-stream: story is only created after the fact. But it doesn’t just happen – or rather, it doesn’t just happen unless no one steps up. Stories are a lot like wet cement. While the events are happening, they’re fluid and manipulable, but as time goes on and the story starts becoming more established, it gets harder and harder to change. For all the weaknesses of a 24 hour news cycle, the one strength is that we get to see the cement before it hardens, which means that the ultimate story can be created by anyone who can build something compelling enough.

As proof of this, look at the recent financial crisis. There has not been any single story more important than This American Life’s Giant Pool of Money. Even if you haven’t heard it, the people you’ve listened to have, and their stories have been shaped by it. This is not because it introduced new information, because NPR[5] has some special insight or because it shocked us in some way. It’s because they told the story of the financial crisis so well that it could not be ignored.

And this is where I come back to gaming. If you game (or write, or create) then you live in the world of stories every day. Some people characterize that as escapist, but I like to think of it as boot camp for the real world. And by the real world, I mean the world of stories.

Power, influence and change have always come from stories, whether it was the story of the divine right of kings or the story of the founding fathers. Historically, those stories have been in the hands of only a few people, transmitted slowly and changing rarely. By the time they got to anyone else, they had already been told. Most people’s stories were about getting them through the next week or next winter, and on those occasions when they were in a position to see these other stories, they were rarely in a position to change them, save under the most dramatic of circumstances.

But that’s changed. If you’re reading this, you’re in a position to take advantage of that change. Stories travel fast now, reaching us before they’ve fully formed, and all the stories of the past are spread out before us, awaiting a critical eye. For better or for worse, the firmer your grasp on stories, the more you can do. This is not merely for novelists or screenwriters, it’s something that can matter in every conversation and blog post, or even around your office. If you can see the world of stories, know the story you tell when you do everything from buy cereal to go to college, you can make a difference.

There’s a cynical instinct to suggest that this is all about appearances, but that misses the key point, a point that makes gamers uniquely equipped to face this new reality. See, this is not about YOUR story, it’s about everyone else’s story. The story you tell yourself is compelling only to you. If you want your story to really work, it needs to be compelling for other people. You need to see the story they see.

So with all this in mind, a hobby that is all about extracting story from events and shifting perspective from yourself to someone else sounds like exactly the kind of training one might want to have.

1 – Other than the fact that Liberal Arts continue to get a bad rap
2 – If the instinctive response to this is that Math Is Truth, then we have a disconnect that’s not worth arguing about. Really, that’s true of any X Is Truth response, but mathematicians and fundamentalists are usually the only ones you really have to worry about it from.

3 – And I note, we ALL buy into stories – we need to, otherwise we become paralyzed an incapable of doing anything. The fact that someone has bought into a story does not make them irrational or unreasonable.

4 – Yes, it’s been proposed, and it’s a great illustration of something important. The fact that a story is crazy doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story. Stuff like this can be sticky.

5 – Radio is an underestimated medium, whatever your political party. It is easy to dismiss NPR or conservative talk radio (especially whichever group you disagree with) but radio is such a limited medium that it demands the mastery of stories because it can’t compensate for their absence with sleight of hand. Successful radio personalities craft compelling narratives; that’s what
makes them successful. Even if you don’t like their stories (or if you conflate their stories with truth), they’re worth paying attention to if you want to see how they do it.

An Idea

I am at that exciting and antsy place that comes before starting a new game. Part of the problem is, of course, I’m not yet sure *which* game I’m working on. I have a few ideas, and I’ll pitch them to the players, take their feedback and come up with something that we’ll all dig.

I enjoy the pitching process. I don’t have any really formal approach to it – sometimes the pitch is as simple as a line or two (“Feng Shui, only as serious conspiracy play rather than Hong Kong action”), sometimes it’s a full write up (as in the case of Golden Century) but whatever it is it tends to summarize the bit that grabs me.

The rub of this is that I have the scattered debris of a fair number of campaigns lying around my notebooks. They’re good ideas (or at least most of them are) but I’m unlikely to ever do anything with them. So I find myself wondering if this might be the basis for an experiment. Grab a few of the more fleshed out ones, like Golden Century, slap a CC license on them, and release them into the wild. Odds are good they would be met with a resounding “flop” noise, but all the same, I keep talking about how I think setting and situation design is the arena that really deserves exploration in the hobby. Maybe this would be a way to put my money where my mouth is.


A Boring But Essential Piece

So, Evil Hat has a company Ipad. This is something Fred and I discussed during the pre-order period, and we concluded we would definitely get a 3g one for the business. Absolutely, some of the decision was impacted by our love of shiny objects, but the bulk of it was a business decision. The ipad seemed like exactly the right device to bring to a convention. You could show off products on the big, friendly screen. 3G meant being able to maintain connectivity in environments where the wifi is slim to nonexistent. Plus, mobile payments are a growing field, and we figured we could use one of the iphone apps to take credit card payments.

I’m not going to pretend we’re big time convention veterans. We only go to a few conventions a year, and we have mostly operated under the IPR umbrella when we have. That said, due to Fred’s relationship with IPR, we’ve been pretty cognizant of the business end of things, and one of the important lessons that comes of sales on the road is that taking plastic will net you sales you would not otherwise be able to manage, especially when the ATM runs out of cash (and the ATM will always run out of cash).

That said, taking credit cards is not necessarily as simple as all that. It costs money to make money, and in the case of businesses who don’t move a large amount of money (like many game companies), the costs associated with taking credit cards can be high enough to offset any benefit. What costs? Well, historically you needed to get a merchant ID (that costs), pay a monthly fee (more $$$) and then you paid a certain amount of every transaction for the privilege. Plus, you needed to figure out how you would take the cards in the first place. You could get a card swiper, and while that’s easiest for your customers, that’s the most expensive option (plus you also need to account for how you’ll print the receipt). If you’ve got a register that can handle it, you can punch in the card, but that register probably wasn’t cheap, and you’re going to pay more per transaction. Plus, in both cases, you need to figure out how to get the connection you need to make the transaction. All these complications are why a lot of folks use knucklebusters, which is to say card-imprints – those old devices that they put your card down on, then with a CHUNK-CHUNK take an imprint of onto carbon paper. That’s easiest to set up, but it exposes you to fraud (nothing says the card has any money on it) and it has the highest interchange rate[1].

This model, for all its craziness, works pretty well for a good size business. The costs of equipment, connectivity and regular fees can all get amortized pretty quickly, especially across a chain. Once a company reaches a certain size, they’re much more concerned with reducing interchange because that’s the biggest bite for them. Oh to have such problems. But for a small merchant, especially one who is selling things only occasionally?

With all this (and other factors I haven’t even mentioned) in mind, the prospect of a way for a small merchant to take payments without paying through the nose is pretty appealing, and the good news is these options are starting to emerge. While they generally cost more per transaction, they reduce or remove the other fees in such a way as to make things much more cost-reasonable for a merchant who isn’t producing the kind of volume in a year that a Target is seeing in a day.

So, I started looking into this, and two real contenders stood out: Intuit[2] and Square. Intuit’s a known player in this space since they’re the folks behind Quicken, and Square was created by a founder of Twitter (of all things) and is looking to shake up small payments.

Both of them offer pretty decent terms. Intuit’s GoPayments is $12.95 a month, but it’s month-to-month, so there’s no setup or breakdown fee. It charges 1.7% + 30 cents for a swiped transaction and 2.7% + 30 cents for a keyed (the number is entered by hand) transaction. The big rub is that you need to buy your own card reader ($145, $220 if you want it to print receipts, which you probably do). But on the plus side the readers are bluetooth, and plug into a huge number of phones.

Square has no monthly fee and they offer a swiper for free (for Iphone, Ipad and apparently Android too) but they charge more per transaction: 2.75% + 15 cents swiped, 3.5% + 15 cents.[3] the swiper, it might be a tough call, but on the face of it, Square looks like a clear winner for smaller merchants, with things tilting more towards intuit the bigger you get.

Let’s assume you’re a game company with a $30 product and someone buys it by swiping a card: with Intuit you’d pay 81 cents per unit. With Square you’re paying 97.5 cents. Not a huge difference, and it’s going to take a long time to make up the difference in price from the monthly fee and buying the hardware. At $100 a sale, then it’s 2 bucks for Intuit versus $2.90 for Square. Still not huge, but at roughly a dollar per transaction, it’s only 250 sales or so before you make back your costs.

All of which is to say, it’s worth looking at what you’re selling and how much you expect to sell before picking an option. Take the DFRPG for example. Most sales will be $90 pairs of the two books, so, ballpark, Intuit starts being a better deal for us somewhere around the 300th sale. If we decide to bring 500 copies, then the decision on what service to use is a difference of almost $200 in our pocket. Yes, that’s a small amount in terms of the whole of the game, or even the whole of the convention, but I say this: if you’re a small game designer, I doubt you want to leave that $200 on the tables.

Now, these aren’t the only options out there, and I don’t want to pretend that they are, but I want to call a little attention to this very dry topic because it’s one of the realities that you’re going to have to deal with, whether you’re a game designer, and artist or god knows what else, if you’re looking to sell your stuff at a convention. Personally, I’ve signed up for Square just to see how it works out – never underestimate the power of free signup plus ease of use – but I’m still waiting on my swiper to arrive. I’ll probably have more to say once it actually gets here.

1 – Interchange rate is the percentage of the transaction cost the merchant pays to the credit card processors. It’s arcane, but the important part is that the riskier the transaction, the higher the rate. CNP (card not present) transactions and transactions where the card isn’t authorized online are generally the riskiest, and thus elicit the highest fee.

2- And in the interest of full disclosure, I actually deal with Intuit’s stuff in my day job, but not in a way that gives me any particular insight into this product.

3 – Square has no printed receipts, but it has a robust receipt-emailing capability. That’s nicely futuristic, but I can see that being an issue.

Polishing The Iceberg

One of the hardest things to do in life is to think about what something you know well looks like to other people. First impressions – both the snap judgments and the longer initial exposure – matter a lot, and its worth taking the time to shift your perspective and consider how you and your project (whatever it is) looks to someone coming across it for the first time. Think of it like an inversion of the usual iceberg metaphor – rather than being all about the great depths hidden out of sight, it’s more about figuring out which part sticks above the surface of the water and making sure that’s eye-catching as possible.[1]

The hardest part to figure out with any project[2] is where people are going to be coming from the first time they find your work. Will they find it by Googling the title? Picking it up off a shelf to peruse? A review? A discussion on a forum? Downloading a preview? There’s no way to know, and that leads to the first and most important rule: Every point of contact is somebody’s first point of contact.

The bad news is this means more work for you. You can’t just pick one thing, like the perfect back cover blurb or the ideal website and trust that it’ll do the job. Yes, if you find a perfect pitch you can tilt attention in that direction (Such as reposting the blurb in other places, or making sure you always have a link to the website on hand) but that’s still going to require a fair amount of work.

There are about a zillion specific things you can do to polish each of these facets, more than I could possibly go into in a single post, so let’s step back to a high level and focus on the three big ones: you need to be clear, you need to be easy and you need to be human.

To understand what being clear means, ask yourself what you think when a friend suggests a book, movie or a game without any context. What are the things you want to know about it to be able to decide if it’s for you? Obviously, you want to know as much as possible as quickly as possible, but you don’t want to know too much. Movies are great for this – you go and catch a trailer online, and in the span of 3 minutes, you have a decent amount of data. For books, this is the back cover blurb. For games it’s….well, we don’t have anything like this for games[3], and that’s kind of a problem. But whatever the form, that idea of something that can be quickly digested to give enough information to create interest, that’s powerful.

But it doesn’t always work. Some trailers are terrible. Some book blurbs are almost nonsensical in their desire to be prose stylings rather than merely informative. Like some reviewers, many blurb-writers make the mistake of trying to show how cool they are rather than helping or informing the reader. Don’t do that. Be clear in the information you provide.

Easy is a corrolary of clear – you don’t want to make a potential fan work to find what they need to know. Forums are great. Ornate websites are great. But if your answer to a potential question requires that someone visit a forum or navigate some whack-ass flash interface, that’s a bad answer. “It’s on the wiki” is not acceptable if you have any interest in turning a querant into a fan.

This one may be the most work, because everything you make easier for others is a little harder for you, and the reality is no matter how well you create the faq or how clearly you write things out, there are going to be questions that you haven’t prepared for. When they come up, remind yourself that no matter how many questions you’ve fielded, this is the first one from this person’s perspective, and how you answer it is how your company acts.

And that comes into the last one: be human. Make sure the face on your interactions is a human one rather than some sort of abstraction. This means a lot of predictable things, like being civil, but it also means copping to things. You’re not going to be perfect, but that’s only a problem if you act like your farts are lemon-scented. If you have a problem, hang a lantern on it – call it out and be at the front of the discussion. Not only is that more responsible, it helps you direct the conversation towards something useful rather than towards something toxic.

Now, here’s the big trick. Yes, I will ultimately suggest doing all three of these things because they are the right thing to do in their own right, but if you’re feeling crazily cynical about human nature and are driven purely by the bottom line, then i say this: do them anyway. Not because good presentation nets sales (though it does) but because this is makes your life easier. See, by providing these answers in a clear, easy and human fashion, you have enabled every person who has ever gotten an answer to speak on your behalf, with confidence. You can’t watch every forum and every blog, and when a question about your product comes up, the more people who are capable of answering the question, the more likely someone will answer it. If you’ve been clear, it will be the right answer. If you’ve made it easy, they can find it. If you’ve been human, they’re more likely to want to help.

Now, I like to think of this as positive reinforcement: treat people well and they treat you well. But if it’s necessary for your worldview to think of this as shameless manipulating the masses to serve your needs[4] then feel free to think of it that way. Either way, you know what to do.

1 – Implicit in this is the assumption that the rest of your iceberg is going to be worthwhile. Icebergs that are all up on top abound in advertising and marketing, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. This is not a cynical ploy to draw attention to something worthless, this is a cynical ploy to draw attention to something valuable and useful.

2 – Project in this case might be a book, a game, a movie or really anything with a creator that might be bought, sold or given.

3 – Except when we steal it. Some games have useful back cover blurbs, some don’t.

4 – Mwahahahahaha

Why Subplot?

So, this is one of those tidbits that I had sort of recognized but never had actually seen called out until I read it in the late Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat[1], but once I read it, I completely saw the logic to it. It goes something like this: when you watch a movie, it has a main plot (the “A Plot”) which is what the movie is about. Defeat the evil overlord, let’s say. But that won’t be the only plot – there will be another story going on, usually a romance or coming-of-age sequence – which runs alongside the A plot. This “B plot” is the first big subplot of the movie, and it’s rarely the last. There are usually several more subplots (C, D and so on) that might revolve around secondary characters resolving their own stories, and that’s all well and good, but for the moment I just want to focus on the A and B plot threads to illustrate an idea.

There’s an instinct to think of the B plot as chrome, or as something that’s shamelessly added to appeal to a demographic. If the A plot is about space ninjas punching giant robots, then the addition of a romantic B plot can seem like a blatant way to try to sell the story to wives and girlfriends.[2] And, heck, it can be that. I just saw Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus this weekend, and in addition to being hilariously in its awfulness, it was a reminder that just because something has been released doesn’t mean it did everything right.

The trick of it is this: the A plot is doomed, especially in adventure flicks. The hero can’t overcome the villain, at least not the way he is when things start out. He’s too busy whining about power converters or is otherwise lacking in what is necessary (resolve, skill, information or the like). The B plot is where he gains that thing he’s missing. It may be as crass as finding out the weakness of the villain because he rescued just the right orphan, he might learn valuable lessons about life and friendship, he might find a reason to fight or it might be something else entirely[3]. The exact details of this aren’t important as much as the idea that the B plot provides the key for resolving the A plot.

With that realization, you then open up a better understanding of the role of other subplots. They may help the A plot resolve, or they may help the B plot resolve so that it, in turn, can help the A plot resolve. These plots are all threaded together like a series of slipknots – if you just tug on the A it will never come loose, but if you tug on them in the right order, it all just opens up.

While this may be unfamiliar language, the basic model here is something that most GMs are familiar with, since this is classic MacGuffin adventure model. The only way to kill the Dark Lord is with the Sword of Weeping Widows, but the only way to find the resting place of the sword is to as the Oracle of On’lev, but to find the oracle you need a map from the library of Farmount, which is currently in enemy hands. It’s quite direct and linear, but it’s a series of plot and subplots all the same. The A plot (kill the dark lord) requires the B plot (Get the sword!) be resolved, which in turn requires the C plot (Find the sword’s location from the oracle) and the D plot (Get the map to the Oracle) to be resolved.

In the classic D&D sense, each subplot equates to a dungeon and it’s a pretty solid model to provide a framework to tie together adventures, but I’m calling attention to the larger model because it suggests two ways you can improve the experience.

The first is simple and easy to implement – there’s no need for these things to be purely linear – a given element may require two or three things to resolve it, which allows you to branch out and give players the freedom to explore things in the order they like. If, for example, the location of the sword was known, but the Oracle and the Library both needed to be checked to get it back, players could choose which one to pursue first rather than follow a dictated order. Yes, on some level this is just a bit of sleight of hand, but there is always going to be a balancing act between keeping adventures interesting and leading players by the nose, so when you can err in favor of giving them some leeway, you should.

The second is a little bit more of a stretch, so bear with me. One of the problems with a lot of classic adventures is the question of why the characters are the ones dealing with this. Certainly, well motivated characters have reasons that they might be taking action, and that works very well on a personal scale, but if you’re talking the kind of heroic threats that are such a staple of gaming, there’s a question of why someone who’s more powerful, smarter and possibly better looking (that is to say, an NPC) isn’t dealing with this problem?

This question is especially problematic in heavily populated published settings[4] and level-based games. Certainly there are ways to make excuses for why no one is intervening[5] but they get strained after a while. So with that in mind, the answer may be found in a B plot that is more like those found in the movies than in the usual module. When the B plot is just another adventure, then yes, anyone with the skill could resolve it. But when the B plot is tied to a personal issue, like a relationship between a PC and an NPC, then only that PC can resolve it. Now there’s a reason it’s his story, and not Badass McNpc’s.

On some level this is just a reminder that plots need to be personal, but it’s also a tool to help keep that from being too ham-handed. The temptation is to make the A plot personal, and that can get rough because there are only so many ways to tie a PC to the main plot that haven’t been done to death. There can only be so many chosen ones or children of prophecy before it gets cliché. Making the B plot personal gives you a hook for players without it being so blatant. When a childhood friend is The Big Villain, that can work maybe once if you’re lucky. If a childhood friend is a lieutenant for The Big Villain and I someone you can talk to? Less of a stretch, and opens much more interesting doors.

Plus, it helps the world hang together a bit better. If the PCs really are interesting (and they should be) they should have a network of friends and family, and it’s only natural that those friends and family end up in interesting places. If your PC trained at the best military academy in the world, then OF COURSE some of his classmates are going to be recruited by bad guys – is the bad guy really looking to recruit the second best? Things like this let you reinforce the ways in which the PCs are exceptional by demonstrating that people who share an attribute with them are well regarded for it.[6]

All of which is to say, next time you pull together an adventure, ask yourself what your b plot is, and how it matters to at least one of your characters.

1 – A wonderful book on screenwriting, one of my favorites.

2 – Yes, in reality, there are plenty of wives and girlfriends who would cheerfully pay money to watch space ninjas punch giant robots, but I think you understand my point.

3 – For less adventurey movies, this may be more subtle, but for action movies this tends to be pretty cut and dried.

4 – By which I really mean The Forgotten Realms, of course.

5- Including the ultimate “screw you” of “They’re doing more important things”. Thanks for underscoring what a bunch of useless chumps we are!

6 – One trick for this that doesn’t show up in much fiction but is incredibly useful in gaming is the combinative element of the party members. One way to truly guarantee that the party are the only folks who could have resolved this is with each sub-plot keying off a different member of the party. Consider, the example of the school friend who’s now an enemy general. The PC warrior has an in with him, but arguably so does anyone else from that school. However, if the second subplot element (say, his fondness to Ialantian artifacts)[7] is one that a second PC in the group can address, then the set of people who could solve this problem has just dropped by another order of magnitude. In one sweep you’ve cemented the player’s position AND acknowledged their backgrounds.

7 – This, by the way, is one of the greatest arguments for supporting color within a system. Combat abilities are nice in combat, but allowing characters avenues for external interests and connections makes for vastly better (read, less generic) plots.

Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies

3e’s introduction of Prestige Classes was a kind of neat idea, full of promise, that never really paid off. Most of them were bad, and a few of them were truly broken, and in large part they ended up existing solely to see what kind of abusive combinations people could come up with.

At first glance, Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies were supposed to fix that, and they kind of do. Since they can’t be combined the way Prestige Classes were, there’s less room for abuse, and since everyone gets them (and they’re layered on top of your normal class) it seems more equitable. And mechanically, it mostly works out. There are a few exceptions – every “broken” character I’ve seen for 4e depends on one or more of the three unique sources of powers (Race, Paragon path and Epic Destiny) combined in weird ways, but even those have usually depended on a creative misreading of the rules. By and large, they’re a mechanical improvement.

But they still fall flat for me. This is another case of the color going one way and the system going another, and someday I’ll make peace with that, but probably not today. The thing is this: some paragon paths are transparently just wrappers around a mechanic[1] but most of them have some element of story to them. Yes, sometimes that story is a bit of a headscratcher, but mostly they’re interesting elements that might add something fun to the world. But that’s where the break down. First, if the powers for the PP are a bad match for your character, it doesn’t matter HOW good the color is, it’s not worth picking up. The powers are just too important to play to pick something blatantly ineffective. Other games can support non-optimal choices to varying degrees, but not 4E.

Second, since this choice is not made until 11th level, any plot elements that the Paragon path introduce end up coming out of left field. If I knew from the outset that a player was going to pick a particular Paragon Path, then it would be possible to introduce those elements into play over the course of the game. If you’re going to become a pit fighter, maybe I’ll have you fight in a pit. If you’re going to join the Cerulean Order, maybe I’ll actually take steps to actually introduce the Cerulean Order into the game.

As with many things in 4E, the first problem is easily enough solved with reskinning. Just say to the GM “I want the background from this Paragon path, but the powers from this Paragon Path” and bam, you’re good. It might take a little tweaking, so a Dwarven Kensai might actually be a an axe-master, but that’s pretty trivial.

Solving the second problem’s a little more involved. You could just have players tell you what Paragon path they’re going for, but in many cases they may not know yet. Back when I was actually writing 4e Products I had an idea I rather liked which I know throw out into the wild. I always thought that Paragon Paths could come with feats, or more specifically, one feat per Paragon Path, offering something useful that synced with the powers and abilities of the Paragon Path. They’d be on the same level as racial feats, that is to say, intentionally a little bit better than regular feats because they reinforce a theme. They’d be handy for characters and, more importantly, they would flag to the DM that the player was going in that direction, so he could start introducing those elements earlier on in the game.

All of these concerns apply to epic destinies as well, and there’s a case t be made that the same solutions could apply. I could see it. But I admit I’m tempted to do something weirder and just let players pick up Epic Destinies at level 1 (as if level 1 were level 21).

Sounds dangerous, I know. Players will get some kind of death resistance and may pick up a big whammy of a power, but to be frank, it’s only one whammy (and in many cases, it’s not much of a whammy, since it tends to rely on other powers – though it may then be many whammies). It’s a power bump, no question, but it also lets you START stories about the children of gods and chosen saints rather than discover those stories 20 levels in. [2]

Honestly, I like the direction that Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies seem to indicate. And if you actually just want to start a game at level 11 or 21, they work fantastically, at least in part because they suggest that the history of the character has lead to this starting point. It’s my hope that, with a little tweaking, that that can also be accomplished through play.

1- And I’m ok with this. Honest crunch is not a bad thing.

2- If the mechanical element worries you, spread out the rewards so they’re over 30 levels not 10, and that should mitigate things enough.

4E’s Greatest Strength and Greatest Weakness (and Greatest Strength)

I am of the firm belief that no problem in 4e[1] cannot be solved through judicious application of page 42. Page 42 of the DMG has the rules for stunts and I think a game sinks or swims by how these rules are used.

My personal take is that any time a player wants to do something cool, you can improvise a ruling for it using the stunt rules. By doing this, it means players can “break the rules” and do things that are not explicitly outlined in the existing powers, like leaping to grab a rope and use the swing to kick an enemy into a pit. In practice, this means I use a system of damage shifting that works roughly like this: I look at the player’s action as an attack and decide where I’d rank it on the scale of

  1. Dull, repeatable
  2. Interesting, repeatable
  3. Awesome, repeatable
  4. Dull, Non-Repeatable
  5. Interesting, Non-repeatable
  6. Awesome, Non repeatable

Those numbers correspond to the columns for Damage Expressions on page 42, and for something that’s straight damage, that’s all I need, but what if it should do something else? Was the swing kick supposed to push the target back? Was the burning oil supposed to ignite?

In a situation like that, I just slide down the list based on how potent the effect is. For simple stuff that I might see in an at-will, like pushing the target a square or letting the PC move a little farther, or a small amount of ongoign damage I’ll go down one step[2]. For more serious effects, I’ll slide down a few more steps. Easy peasy.[3]

But this is where it gets rough, and where we get into my biggest frustration with 4e. So long as we stick with things we can easily visualize, where the consequences of the actions are reasonable and understandable, this all works great. Imagining an action that knocks someone down or lights them on fire is not hard, but many other effects are much harder to visualize. The idea of stunting an attack that might put the Dominated or Petrified status on someone is hard to wrap your brain around.

But the problem is, that’s equally true of powers. The color of 4e attacks varies from loosely tied to the mechanical expression to completely baffling in its association. This encourages a habit of expressing things purely in terms of mechanics rather than color because the color will, simply put, not always make sense. That, in turn, discourages things like stunting because it’s an entirely different language. Put most directly, there are two modes of play – applying mechanics and then describing their outcome, or describing action and then interpreting it with mechanics. A lot of times when people decry 4e as just a boardgame, it’s this divide they’re talking about.[4] I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, but awareness of this division is useful.

So, the problem with coming up with color to reflect more dramatic effects is a rough one, but this is where we also come back into 4e’s strength. While it’s not quite a science, there is definitely an art to when certain types of effects and conditions start occurring in play (both in terms of monster abilities and player abilities). Dominate, for example, it not terribly common at the heroic tier, but in higher level games you’ll see more of it. This pattern is true for most effects, and this makes for a weird ebb and flow of play. On paper, these things aren’t really level dependent, but by distributing them by level, 4E uses its mechanics to create is own type of flavor for the tiers of play.[5]

The upshot of this is that as players and GMs achieve greater mastery of the system, they also get a greater understanding of what are, effectively, the genre expectations of the tiers. A heroic tier monk who attempted to justify a paralyzing strike as a stunt would probably be considered inappropriate, but they same monk in the epic tier might be more in bounds.

Now, genre is definitely a bit of a bugaboo. Let’s say that monk wants to jam his hands into a burning brazier sacred to Kord to make an attack with his fists wreathed in divine fire. In some games, that would be totally cool, while in others, the monk would be looking to take some fire damage for his trouble. Neither approach is incorrect, it’s only a problem if this expectation is not communicated well.

That said, I do caution any DM looking to get his stunt on to keep an eye on the roles of the party member and be more flexible when a stunt reflects that role. Similarly, this is probably the area where power source is well worth keeping in mind. See, Martial characters and Strikers (especially martial strikers) have the easiest time stunting. Because they’re physical and all their actions are easy to describe, they’re easy to stunt. Characters with other power sources are dependent on their powers to do things, and as powers are purely a function of game logic, it’s really necessary to develop a sense of what cool things the character could do that are in theme but not necessarily power use. This is easier for some classes than others – Druids are MADE to stunt, but Wizards can have a hard time of it because of the historical D&D model that their abilities are all Vancian spells – so it may be worth talking to individual players about how they see their character stunting. Even if this means coming up with a few “pre-made” stunts and setting up situations where the character can use them, it is entirely worth the effort of doing so if it means EVERYONE at your table is engaged and being awesome, not just the rogue or monk.

1 – In combat, at least.

2 – In this I also include some faux conditions like “Unbalanced” (getting hit again knocks you prone) or “Distracted” (grant someone else combat advantage)

3 – There’s an argument that this makes players more powerful because it effectively grants them an array of extra encounter powers so long as they can think of awesome things to do. I am too pro-awesome too give this much weight. Also, there are some checks baked into this model – I’m willing to have damage go to 0, representing a zero step on that list, but no lower. That means if a player wants to kick an opponent back one square (dull, repeatable, 1 shift), then he can do it if he’s willing to forgo damage, but if he wants to trip an opponent (dull, repeatable, 2 shift) then it’s not an option unless he does something to make it cooler. In practice, this means that players can’t really make up encounter power-equivalent effects based solely on their own actions, though a creative enough player might be able to effectively fake some at-wills. However, each time you do something it gets more boring, so coming up with “Repeatable, Awesome” is great, but actually repeating it it will make it interesting, then dull in short order.

4 – Ironically, this actually creates a lot of overlap between 4e and some of the more curious small press games, which also flow from mechanics to play rather than having mechanics used to interpret play, but that’s neither here nor there.

5 – In my mind this is a callback to the way spell availability changed the nature of D&D over time. Certain spells (Teleportation, Fly, stuff like that) opened up the scope of play by changing the nature of things like overland travel, which in turn changed the flavor of games. 4e powers don’t really reflect this (though rituals do , to some extent) but the game is still structured to try to capture that sense.

Puzzling Out Puzzles

You round the corner and see a square room, perhaps thirty feet by thirty feet. A great door on the opposite side of the room is bound in iron encrusted in runes that glow faintly. There’s not apparent means to open it, but on the floor is an intricate pattern of glowing lines, with half a dozen short pillars of stone resting at the intersections that looks like this drawing

Oh, you have got to be kidding me.

Wait, what? It’s an ancient elven…

It’s a freaking puzzle. Because ancient elves hated doorknobs.

Hey, this was a hiding place for great secrets. They had to put in safeguards!

Safeguards that any idiot with enough patience could get past. Yeah, some geniuses. Seriously, can’t we just skip past his and get back to the fun stuff?

Puzzles are tricky. As a GM they always seem like such a great idea. They introduce a challenge for the players and provide a nice challenge to fight scenes. They offer an opportunity to introduce depth to a setting without And Tolkien had one at the gates of Moria, so it’s got to be good, right?

In practice, they never quite deliver. Either one of your players immediately sees the solution and they breeze past it (possibly leaving everyone but the puzzle guy feeling frustrated) or the puzzle stumps them, and they’re stuck and frustrated until you drop a hint or one of them goes off and googles a solution. As something that can bring a game to a dead stop, it’s just a bad idea.

The instinct is to just stop with puzzles altogether. That was certainly my solution for a long time, but there’s a trick that let’s you get all the good things out of a puzzle *without* the problems, and it’s this: don’t put puzzles in a place where they can stop play. Put them right out in the open where players can see them and poke at them while they still proceed with the adventure.

For purposes of this, a puzzle is any element of play which needs to be figured out to reveal something new. A well constructed puzzle has a ‘trick’ to it. Once you know the trick (or tricks) the answer becomes obvious, but without the trick, it’s frustrating. Like a bird-eye view (or the right-hand trick) makes a maze easy to solve, or how a cipher becomes crystal clear once you have the key.

While this certainly includes most classic logic puzzles, that definition applies to a wide range of in play elements, including mysteries and clues as well as setting secrets. While their narrative may differ greatly, their structure is very similar, and the tricks that work for one can inform on another.

Take, for example, the murder mystery. It is a puzzle (who? why? How?) but rather than stop play, it _drives_ play. Players are aware of that puzzle and they work their way around it over the course of their investigation, prodding and probing until some new insight is revealed. Most GMs are comfortable with this model, but does it really translate to more traditional puzzle boxes and strange languages?

It turns out it does, and if you want a fantastic example of how to do so, take a look at some of the shows that have JJ Abrams’ name on them[1]. The man’s nuts for mysteries – maybe too nuts – but he provides a fantastic template for how to drop a mystery dead center in the middle of things without it stopping events. The difference (as with the murder mystery) is that the puzzles are created to drive play, not as mere one-offs in the course of a story.

How do you do this? First and foremost, you put the puzzle right out in the open. Not only do the characters know it’s there, but so do other people who also have an interest in the solution (or more precisely, what the solution reveals). Something as simple as a locked door becomes a plot when no one can open it, there’s something behind it, and there’s a small cast of characters invested in the fate of the door.

Second, you don’t need a solution to resolve anything. Specifically, this means that the solution is not necessary to resolving whatever other plots are on hand. If a session or an arc ends with a puzzle unsolved, that’s fine. Unsolved puzzles have the opportunity to *grow*, with hints and callbacks springing up in other places. If that door is never opened, it just means its all the more interesting if the players find another such door somewhere else, only this time it looks like they’re on the other side.[2]

Lastly, don’t be afraid to make puzzles that are too hard or too easy. Too hard just means that you can pay them out longer. Too easy means that they can help move the players on to the next thing with a sense of quick accomplishment. As long as you don’t make a big deal out of either extreme, they both remain playable. It is only when this gets you flustered that it’s going to throw things for a loop.

Puzzles really are a fantastic part of gaming. I know some people still love them for all their dungeon crawling goodness, and more power to them. But that’s not the only way you can use them in your game. They have a lot to offer, if you’ll just give them a try.

1 – If you haven’t, check out Abrams’ TEDtalk about The Mystery Box.

2 – Using elements like this to build organically can really give your setting that sense of continuity that excites fans of the most convoluted of programs. Callbacks are made of win.