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

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

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

World of Warcraft: A Case Study in Design Focus

WarcraftLogoFinal

With a peak subscriber rate of twelve million players and a rotating, on-and-off player base, it’s hard to imagine that there are many video gamers left who haven’t at least tried Blizzard’s magnum opus, World of Warcraft. After all, it’s got so many games in it, so much content! It’s got something for everyone, so how can you go wrong?

Turns out a lot can go wrong.

Turns out that when you try to make the omni-game, when you try to have “a little of everything,” you end up with a lot half-baked ideas and broken systems; that when you try to please everyone, you don’t really satisfy anyone. Turns out that you can’t just mix everything together at the WoW All-U-Can-Eat buffet and still expect to have something good in the end. Continue reading