Part Six: An Open Break-Up Letter to D&D

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

Dear D&D,

It’s been awhile since we’ve been in touch, and I feel bad that I just sort of left our relationship hanging. We’ve had pretty strong feelings over the years, and to simply leave that to peter out with no closure is just wrong. I owe it to you to be honest about where we stand with each other.

Also, I want to assure you that the rumors you’ve been hearing about me bad-mouthing you are untrue. You’re an intense person, and you tend to attract intense friends. Those people are good friends to you, but people with strong feelings often interpret things uncharitably to fit their world-view. I never meant anything I’ve said about you to be a slight on your character, and I wanted to set that record straight as well.

The truth is, we were never meant to be together. And that has more to do with me than with you. I wanted you to be – believed that you were – something that you’re not, something you’ll never be. That’s okay. You don’t need to change to suit me, because a relationship based on a lie just doesn’t work in the long run. But I needed to come to terms with that, and it isn’t until now that I fully understood the divide between us.

And the last reason I wanted to write this is because you have a history of having the sort of relationship that we did. I think a lot of the people you’ve dated in the past have been projecting some kind of perfect image onto you, each different from the last. I know how good it feels in the moment, but it isn’t healthy. You deserve to be loved for who you are, not for who someone wishes you were.

So I’m going to spend some time talking about us. I’m going to talk about our relationship over the years, what went wrong, and what I’ve learned since then. To understand who we are, we need to look at who we were. And hopefully through all this, we can finally move on to healthier relationships.

So. Let’s start at the beginning… Continue reading

Part Five: What About 5th Edition?

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

So I hear the question you’re all dying to ask me: “What about 5th edition?” It’s the newest version, and adoption of it seems to be high if Twitch is any indication. Everyone seems to be having a good time with it, and there’s even story and character rules in it this time! Surely it’s better, maybe the best one yet! What about that one?

To which I would shrug and say, “What about 5th edition?”

What exactly in this new hotness is a major improvement on any of the stuff I’ve talked about in this series so far? I’ve poured over the books in great detail since they came out, and I haven’t found anything to indicate that it’s substantially different from any edition previous. And really, you wouldn’t expect it to be. Such is the way of mega-franchises: change it too much, and you risk a fandom rebellion.

5th edition D&D does the thing new editions always do: it rearranges, it simplifies, it recomplicates, and otherwise overhauls the entire system to be completely and totally exactly the same as it always has been. Sorry, but D&D 5th edition is essentially just business as usual. Continue reading

Part Four: On Narrative Power

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

There’s a stereotype of the relationship between D&D players and their DMs, and anyone with any access to the cultural cache of the game knows it. DMs labor thanklessly to work out long, involved plans and stories for the benefit of their players. Players are headstrong, clueless, even diabolical, and will find a way to derail all those plans at the earliest opportunity, whether through inexplicable stupidity or even willful and sinister delight. It’s so well-recognized that it’s become more or less a permanent fixture of play.

Carefully Thought Out Campaign
The poor, suffering DM

Why is this so familiar? Do all D&D players suffer from some kind of dumb-virus? Is foiling your DM some kind of cultural meme that players learn from each other? Would that even explain it when they do it by accident? No, as in previous articles, the pattern of play emerges from the dynamics of the rules. In this case it stems from an oft-overlooked aspect of the format: the power dynamic between player and DM.

Continue reading

Part Three: On Plot and Narrative

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

Imagine for a moment that you were unexpectedly handed the reins to your favorite television show of all time. A business exec knocks on your door and tells you – doesn’t ask you – that you’re now responsible for writing and producing the show from week to week. You’ll need to carry the existing plot to a logical and satisfying conclusion, tie all the characters into the main arc, make sure everyone gets enough screen time, hit all of the emotionally resonant notes of the show’s identity, and maintain its current level of quality, all on a strict weekly deadline.

Could you do it? No, honestly: could you really do it? Could you fill the shoes of the writer of your favorite show? All the DMs out there probably noticed that the job description sounds a lot like running a weekly roleplaying group, but remember: this is the big leagues. There is a built-in audience of millions, and all their expectations ride on your back. This isn’t just about you and your own opinion of the show anymore. You will be ruthlessly judged by many other people based on your ability to produce top quality television week after week after week. Could you do it? Continue reading

Part Two: On Good Characters

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

“Let me tell you about my character.” The seven most dreaded words in the geek lexicon.

When you hear them, you know you’re in for a monologue of context-free adventuring, probably a description of their class and magic items, and possibly an explanation of how they broke the game with this weird combination of feats and class features, as well as what they killed that made their DM super mad. You’ll sit there and nod politely as you try to make sense of their disjointed shenanigans. After all, if you endure this, they might be willing to nod politely when you tell them about your character!

Elsewhere in the world, someone else says to their friend “You’ve gotta hear about this show I’m watching!” This person starts talking about the characters and who they are, what they do. And the other person listens. Interested. They might ask questions about it, compare it to shows they know. If they’re into that kind of story (or sometimes even if they’re not), the conversation might even end with “Yeah, I gotta find time to watch that!”

What’s the difference here? In both cases, they’re both talking about characters in a story that they’re enjoying. But why is it that passing acquaintances can successfully talk about television as a topic of interest, but people in the same community with a common interest in D&D just loathe that conversation? Continue reading

Part One: Rule Zero is Bullshit

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

Before I talk about D&D itself, we need to talk about Rule Zero. We need to talk about RPG rules in general, as a concept. If you’ve followed my work for awhile, you already know that I often talk about how game rules push players into patterns of behavior. That’s the function of game rules, really: by voluntarily taking on constraints and abiding by rules, players should have a particular experience as envisioned by the designer of those rules. Rules shape the play experience from the ground up or else why do we need them?

This is obviously true for video games where the rules are largely immutable and the play experience is quite supervised. It’s hard to imagine the experience being sourced from anything but the game since the game is in control of just about everything. A tabletop RPG feels like a completely different animal. Much of the moment-to-moment play consists of what amounts to free-form narration. It might initially appear that RPG rules are less important, that they take on a lighter hand as they allow the players to take more control over the experience.

But if anything, that makes the rules of a tabletop RPG even more important. Continue reading

D&D: Chasing the Dragon

(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)

Darths & Droids is a webcomic where the authors retell the story of the Star Wars films as a tabletop RPG. While there’s no specific system that the players are running, anyone who’s played a popular system like Dungeons & Dragons is sure to recognize what’s going on at the table. Rather than the impassioned, noble heroes you’d expect in a sci-fi/fantasy epic, the main characters are buffoonish, violent, make questionable decisions, and are generally more interested in XP and loot than in furthering or investing in the story of their exasperated DM. While their bizarre antics contrast sharply with an otherwise sincere setting played straight, they bear a certain familiarity to players of popular roleplaying systems, and they have a way of making the story of the Star Wars prequels seem like an amateur D&D campaign gone off the rails. Continue reading

Don’t Starve: Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone

I passed by this sign walking through town the other day. I liked the message – it was an exhortation to keep pushing yourself and not to go slack the moment things get rough. Taking a rest now and again is okay, even essential, but we should never stay there very long. There’s too much to do, too much to see, too much life to live and things to learn. To truly live is to be challenged and to change – staying where it’s safe and familiar is simply existing.

It’s one of the reasons that games are important. Games are a safe place to learn about the world, its systems, and ourselves. They let us practice at being human, whatever we interpret that to mean. They change us, shape us, hopefully for the better.

But they don’t always. A game can also leave you where you are, free to act on your own impulses, running on autopilot. It’s a comfortable state of mind, and games that indulge it tend to value self-directed play above all else. But should we be celebrating life within your comfort zone? Because without a little prodding, that’s where we tend to stay, content to lay about, wrapped up in who we already are. Too often, we prefer existing to living. And that way lies boredom, stagnation, and dormancy. In order to keep us from that self-inflicted state, a game’s design needs to intervene. Continue reading

“How Hard?” More Like “Hard How?” – A Response to The Meta

meta-heading

So I found these super cool guys at Kill Screen who run a column called The Meta. It’s the way they talk about games that caught my attention. Just look at the opening to a conversation they had about animation canceling in games:

“All animation cancels should be destroyed.”

Woah. I can count the people I know who make statements like that on one hand. I love that it’s such a strong position, because even if someone disagrees, the conversation that follows is bound to be interesting. You should definitely check it out.

The fundamental question of the conversation is this: “Is it okay for a game to have unintuitive, unexplained aspects of its technique in the name of skill?” Animation canceling, can of worms that it is, is only one aspect of the issue. And if you’re reading this and saying “WTF is animation canceling?” consider yourself a perfect demonstration of the problem.

But there’s one quote in particular that I want to talk about. It’s a quote that subtly colored the entire conversation, and it exposes some of the biases that we have about how to make games.

Justin Groot: “Aren’t mechanics that make things arbitrarily more difficult essentially the definition of any competitive game though?”

What a question. There’s a lot of baggage implied there, and I want to unpack it. It seems obvious that competitive games need skill, but it really matters what he means by “skill.” Not all skills are compatible with each other, and using conventional skills like dexterity and reflexes has a way of limiting a designer’s imagination, of cutting off all kinds of depth that other skills have to offer. Above all, designers should be purposeful and shrewd about which skills they put into their games instead of relying on whatever skills accidentally made it in. Continue reading

How to Play Democracy and Win!

democracy-game

Hey everyone, it’s that time again: the year when the grandest of all grand-strategy games plays out involving every single person in America. What game, you ask? Why, it’s the game of Democracy®! In development since 1787 and with a larger concurrent player base than even League of Legends, it’s one of the longest running and most popular games of all time. And here we are in the midst of the latest season. What an exciting and wonderful time to be alive!

But now that the game is on, what’s the best way to play it? Democracy® is a challenging, high-stakes game with some very tough opponents. If you want to come out on top, you’re going to need a strategy. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of people with ideas about the best way to play, and they’re definitely going to tell you all about them. In fact, there’s one strategy in particular that’s in vogue this season, and it has everything to do with wasted votes. That sounds pretty serious. Can a vote really be wasted? Maybe we can use game theory to find out how well this strategy holds up. Let’s try. Continue reading

Tourneys and Ladders: A Response to David Sirlin

Overwatch Logo

David Sirlin just published an article on his design blog regarding the newly released competitive mode for Overwatch. In it, he highlights some of the problems with the format, problems that result in a lot of draws. Sirlin approaches them from the perspective of tournament play, which is his forte. He asserts that the fundamental issue with the game types in question is that the number of rounds they require is even when it really should be odd. It’s a simple solution, but when you analyze the dynamics of that game type, it really isn’t so simple. And there’s a bigger problem than that because of one of Sirlin’s underlying assumptions: that the competitive mode needs to have a tournament format. But Overwatch competitive mode isn’t a tournament – it’s a ladder. And there’s a huge difference. Continue reading

Casual vs. Hardcore – Settling the Score

Deal With Auro Banner

There’s an idea that’s been haunting video games for years now. It permeates every corner of gaming culture: you can see it on news sites, reviews, conventions big and small, community forums, design discussions, and of course in the games themselves. It’s a specter that silently and insidiously manipulates the way we make games, the way we play games, and the way we think about games. Sometimes it even makes people go crazy and storm forums with internet torches and pitchforks. And worst of all, it creates artificial divisions between people who could otherwise coexist and enjoy themselves.

The ghost? The hardcore vs. casual narrative.

There’s this idea that on one side you have unskilled, nonchalant players who don’t care at all about winning, and on the other side you have these elite warriors who thrill at the thought of dominating their opponents. There’s a spectrum that’s implied, but don’t let that fool you – there’s a war going on between the two factions of gaming, and everything done to appease the casual comes at the expense of the hardcore. Lines have been drawn, and games are either for one or the other.

But the good news is the narrative is a lie! Games don’t have to cater to one of the two camps, and neither games nor people need to carry either of the labels. If a designer doesn’t put himself into a box, he doesn’t have to put his game or his players into a box either. So don’t believe in the narrative. Don’t do it! Even as a player, such thinking can warp your view of a game system and make you believe strange things about it.

Take, for example, a self-identified “casual” who took one look at the ranking system in Auro and assumed it meant the game was for “hardcore” players, that he was an outsider, and that the game was for someone else. I mean, games with ranks in them are for hardcore people, right? To prove how tough and badass they are?

The hardcore vs. casual narrative is not a truism. It’s merely a perspective, and it’s a poisonous one that can bring out our worst ideas. Because actually no, ranks aren’t just for hardcore players. In fact, they help to make the play experience better for everyone, “casual” and “hardcore” alike. Continue reading

Beyond Game Balance: When to Hang Up the Nerf Bat

Nerf Bat

Want to start an argument? Start talking about religion or politics. This works especially well if you have several outspoken people in the group to get the ball rolling. If you want to maximize the vitriol, make sure that nobody involved in the conversation knows anyone else very well, so that nobody has any common ground or any context for the things people say. People will misunderstand and talk past each other to the point where nobody will make any progress, and the conversation will end with everybody hating everyone else. Mission accomplished!

So how do you start an argument on the internet? …well, pretty much the same way. But do you know how else to start an argument on the internet? Start talking about game balance. Now, there’s a topic to get the blood boiling, and you can’t get through your average forum thread without several salvos of “lol nub” and “git gud.” What’s interesting is that this conversation bears an uncanny resemblance to the religion or politics conversation. Everyone comes from a different place in their understanding of the topic, but in their experience theirs is the right one. There are plenty of people talking past each other, there’s plenty of dismissal, and everyone is definitely outspoken.

But who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s easy to write the whole thing off as opinion, and yet people win and lose games using this information, so there must be some objectivity to it all. In fact, the premise of a competitive game is founded on a form of objectivity: generally speaking, the winner is incontestably better than the loser. So these players have good reason to believe they’re right. Their experience playing the game is dedicated to learning this stuff. Players trying to eke out any advantage they can over their opponents will, as a matter of course, find things that help them to win more easily.

But a player who hasn’t gotten there yet might find the same new techniques overpowering, at least until he learns a little more about how they work and how to counter them. Even the best players often advance their knowledge of the game, and by proxy so does the rest of the community at large. This is a sign of a healthy game-system – if people at all skill levels are still adjusting what they think it means to be a good player, that means there’s still undiscovered depth for players to chart.

But in the meantime, how do we sort out all these conflicting viewpoints? How can the same character be both too strong and too weak? Who is right? Well, would you believe… everyone? That may sound like a plea for, “Why can’t we all just get along?” but it’s absolutely true. The reason it’s true, however, is because we asked the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking “Who is right?” What we should be asking is, “Who is the most right?” Let me explain. Continue reading

Dark Souls 2: Difficulty Dissected

You Died

You may have heard that the Souls franchise is hard. You may have even heard that it can make you into some sort of bizarre double-man. The director and supervisor of the series often talked about his desire to use difficulty to facilitate a sense of achievement (as opposed to collecting cheevos). I often hear gamers wearing the Souls series like a suit of armor, as though it were proof of their gaming prowess, and staunchly defending it from any attempts to improve “accessibility,” a word that seems to translate as “easier.” In fact, there was quite the kerfuffle back in 2012 when the internet suspected director Hidetaka Miyazaki of wanting to make an easy mode for Dark Souls 2, a comment that was speedily retracted. And in true PR form, Namco Bandai assured everyone in 2013 that the sequel would be “viciously hard.”

So isn’t it funny that just last month, the video series Extra Credits put out a video detailing how the true genius of Dark Souls 2 is… its easy mode! The producers detail out exactly how to make Dark Souls 2 a much easier experience, and go to great lengths to convince everyone why that’s such a great thing. It’s actually the sort of thing that EpicNameBro spoke out against during the 2012 controversy: he argued that having the option to lessen the difficulty robs the game of its tension and sense of achievement. Now, I disagree with Extra Credits (as I often do), but they’re definitely correct that Dark Souls 2 has what amounts to a “soft” easy mode, and that’s probably the reason why it slipped by so many gamers including EpicNameBro. But I think the important question here isn’t how hard the game is or isn’t. The important question is what kind of difficulty the game has.

In other words, what does it mean to be a truly “hard” game? Continue reading

Smash Bros: What Makes a Party Game?

Party Ball

Super Smash Bros. is a fascinating series for many reasons. The first is that it’s one of the only fighting games to really break the mold and do something wildly different from other 2D fighting games. It changes the entire goal of the game from one of hit point depletion to one of damage accumulation and a sort of sumo knock-out. It links the short-term game arcs into a meaningful long-term arc to a degree that many fighting games don’t. Getting knocked away farther and farther distances as your damage goes up changes the way you interact with your opponent in a much more fundamental way than a “super meter” can.

That fact alone is a significant reason for its questionable status among gamers, which brings us to the second reason it’s so fascinating: many gamers don’t even consider it to be a fighting game. Of course, a claim like that begs the question “What is a fighting game?” And if the answer to that is “A one-on-one match where on-screen avatars punch, kick, and throw thirty-six different variations of fireball at each other until one person runs out of hit points,” then no, Super Smash Bros. is not a fighting game. But it’s only the last bit where SSB fails the litmus test. There’s still plenty of punching and kicking and fireballs happening on screen – it’s just that the goal is inverted and made more elastic. It’s a consequence of video game genre names being more focused on thematic elements than how the game actually works. I mean, is there any shortage of “fighting” in Dota 2?

Ultimately, the format of the game isn’t the biggest reason for SSB’s questionable genre status – it’s the word of the creator. In another fascinating aspect of the story of SSB, game director Masahiro Sakurai has often gone on record saying that he had always intended Smash Bros. as a “party game,” and each and every time community forums have violently exploded. “See?? I told you it was a party game! It’s not like actual fighting games where it’s about skill!” “No way, Smash has skill! Just look at wave dashing!” It’s an old argument, one not always even fought on the same terms, but the one thing that at least the competitive players seem to mostly agree on is “No items!” The randomized items that appear all over the place give SSB a wacky sort of flavor. They create the vibe of a party game, but do so at the expense of the competitive integrity of the game. So when Nintendo’s position on SSB is that it’s “a kind of ‘rough’ party game,” they’re sending a message to fighting game enthusiasts that SSB isn’t for them. However, I think in doing so, Nintendo has drawn a false dichotomy: the idea that there are party games, and there are competitive games – there is no overlap. However, that doesn’t need to be the case.

Continue reading

Auro: Doing It Right

Auro Title

When I browse around gaming forums and subreddits, I see a lot of people asking the same question:

“What are other games like _______?”

It’s a fair question, and it makes sense. People are generally aware of their own tastes, for the most part. However, without an understanding of why they like what they like, people have to instead make comparisons and just hope that’s good enough. People might call Borderlands a mashup of Diablo and Call of Duty. Unturned might be called a mashup of DayZ and Minecraft. But is the actual experience of playing any of those games really similar to the games they come from? Do you play Call of Duty for the same reasons you play Borderlands? What exactly does Unturned have to do with Minecraft?

You could really go wrong making recommendations based on visual elements or theme when the primary driver of the experience is the rules of play. What you can and can’t do, what you’re asked to do, and how you decide to do those things are what shape the actual player experience much more than theming alone. With that in mind, I want to talk to you about a game where what you do is actually unlike anything else I’ve ever played – Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure by Dinofarm Games. Continue reading

Leveling Systems Part Two: Where We Could Go From Here

Level Up Part 2

In part one of this article, A Brief History of Leveling Systems, I talked about the problems that video games have had in implementing the D&D leveling system. While it may seem to have made sense to turn RPGs into video games, designers didn’t consider how different a social tabletop game and a single-player video game truly are. The game systems designers ended up making were clumsy and shallow, and they unwittingly paved the way for the skinner box apps of today. Rather than designing sophisticated game systems, designers accidentally got sidetracked by what seemed to work on audiences and thus sold many copies. The ultra-monetization of games has brought with it the need to continually produce commercially successful games regardless of the content, and it has probably done more harm to the art than good. It has certainly skewed our understanding of design as well as our priorities as developers. I certainly noticed a strangely happy vibe from the author of the Puzzle & Dragons breakdown.

That’s not to say that leveling systems should never be included in a video game. Indeed, computers are far more efficient at running complicated, number-based game systems than a human with paper and pencil could ever be. It does mean, however, that the game system needs to change in order to accommodate its new medium. If we take some time to really understand these game systems, we can make games that leverage our favorite genre tropes effectively while maintaining the integrity of the core game. In fact some games have even taken those first steps, though they are rarely given credit for their vision. Continue reading

A Brief History of Leveling Systems

Level Up

Dungeon Master: “On your way out of town, you catch sight of a strange flying ship, held aloft by propellers, making its way across the sky,”

Frye: “Woah, cool! We totally follow it!”

DM: “It was flying out past the bay inlet, and as you reach the water’s edge, you can only just see the airship as it heads for the horizon.”

Mary: “I wonder what that was all about. Maybe there’s more of them!”

DM: “As you wait on the beach for another ship, you hear a squishing noise behind you. You turn and see three disgusting slime creatures with faces creeping toward you.”

Greg: “Slimes? Whatever, we got this! Everyone roll initiative!”

DM: “Okay, looks like you go first. What do you do?”

Frye: “I roll a critical hit is what I do! Check it! Booyah!”

DM: “You do zero damage to the slime.”

Frye: “…what?” Continue reading

DuckTales: When Scoring Goes Worse

As a kid, I was obsessed with video games. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about them, talking about them, and most of all reading about them. I would read any sort of literature I could get my hands on. I’d read game manuals over and over again, memorize strategy guides, and I even found a strange hard-cover book in the library with tips on how to beat over a hundred games from the Apple II era. And of course, I read Nintendo Power any chance I got. Just looking at the maps for the video games it featured felt almost as real as actually playing them.

But there was one section of old issues of Nintendo Power that sort of bothered me: the ‘NES Achievers’ section. Readers would write in to the magazine with their high scores, gaming accomplishments, and presumably some proof of their feats. It wasn’t the fact that these readers were receiving accolades for their video game prowess that bothered me, it was the accomplishments themselves. Some of them were easy enough to understand: Dragon Warrior – Finished. Tetris – 754,811.

Mega Man – 6,695,000

Wait, what? Continue reading

Spelunky: When Scoring Goes Bad

Spelunky Competition

Spelunky is probably my favorite PC video game of 2013 (pending when I finally give Divekick a try). There’s a lot of good stuff going on in the gameplay – find your way down through randomly assembled platforming configurations and collect as much treasure as you can. You have a clear goal, but how to pursue that goal is ambiguous, the way hazards can combine are treacherous, and the ghostly dread of the soft time limit adds a sharp tension to every level you attempt. It has all the trappings of a great game you can play basically forever.

There was one feature that really stood out to me when I began playing: the Daily Challenge. A master server randomly generates a single configuration for the day, and all players get exactly one chance to score on it. It nicely counters the random arrangement and allows players to directly compete on an equal footing while still keeping the core gameplay completely intact.

I loved it – it was exciting to boot up the game each day to try my hand at today’s challenge. Knowing that my one shot for the day was on the line added even more tension to the run, and it really brought out my best. I really had to play things smart – I had to know when to take a big risk with low resources and when to just move on, when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. It seemed like the game was at its best. Then I began to see a disturbing trend in the high score list for each Daily Challenge. That’s when I realized that I was playing all wrong and came to a surprising conclusion:

Daily mode as implemented in Spelunky is actually a bad idea. Continue reading