Add More Life to the Party

Strahd
Count Strahd von Zarovich

A combination of newfound free time and fresh blood has resulted in realistic plans to get a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign running amongst my friends. Of all the new D&D adventure settings, I selected Curse of Strahd. I remember the old Raveloft module, although I never got to play it. I did win a sealed copy – that was handed to me by DM-to-the-Stars, Chris Perkins – at GenCon 2012, and it remains sealed in a box of D&D 4th Edition materials in the “Harry Potter” room under the stairs of our house. My excitement to start a campaign and get back into the DM chair is fun to embrace, and I am eagerly cooking up methods to hit the ground running with our new group.

One aspect of running a campaign that I thoroughly appreciate is weaving in the backstory elements of each player into the game sessions. Whenever a player takes the time to create a backstory, I want to reward that in a meaningful way. The nice thing about 5th Edition D&D is the Player’s Handbook gives players reference tables to craft a backstory through Backgrounds, which provide ideas for Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. My hope for the new campaign is to add another layer to the character creation process to increase the interconnectedness of the party.

And to accomplish this I borrowed from my recent experiences playing the terrific boardgame, Pandemic Legacy.

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Increasing Immersion with Obligation

We started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EotE) campaign last year, and one of the more interesting components of character creation is the Obligation system. Obligation is introduced during character creation and remains an ongoing device throughout the life of the campaign that can be used by both player and game master (GM) to facilitate storytelling, increase tension, and introduce surprise action. I believe the Obligation system is an example of how mechanics can affect the amount of roleplaying and immersion at the table.

When building a character in Edge of the Empire, one of the steps is selecting the character’s Obligation. Quite simply, no one in the Edge of the Empire is a self-starter; every character owes somebody something.  While some players may enjoy forming a backstory – complete with layers of drama and intrigue – creating a detailed backstory is not something all players (or GMs) enjoy. For example, a player does not have to create any meaningful backstory for a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons character; the character is built by selecting desired attributes, powers, and gear. The player is asked to select Alignment to designate his or her moral compass, but after that initial selection is complete, alignment rarely comes into play for most groups. In other words, creating a backstory with any detail for a 4e D&D character is up to the discretion of the player and GM; Edge of the Empire’s Obligation system forces players to create a bit of backstory for their character.

Prologue Comics Wookiee Life Debt

I believe the Obligation system is something that could be used by other roleplaying game systems to enhance character creation and increase immersion. It forces the player to not answer answer the question, “What do I want my character to do?” But to also answer, “How did my character get here?” I will discuss the benefits of consequences of the Obligation system below.

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Ego Check: Spencer Estabrooks, Creator of One Hit Die

I did not realize what was missing in my life until I received a press release for One Hit Die, a new webseries that combines “the journey and adventure of a Dungeons & Dragons game with the intimate aside interviews of The Office.” I quickly followed the link, watched the first four episodes of the series, and fell in love with the concept. Considering how much of my blog is dedicated to navel gazing the various levels of communication involved in roleplaying games, One Hit Die is a critical hit on my sensibilities.

One Hit Die LogoI reached out to the creator of One Hit Die, Spencer Estabrooks. He has directed numerous short films in the past and was able to fund One Hit Die by earning a grant through the Alberta Foundation of the Arts. He is in the process of raising funds to advance the show, and was kind enough to share some of his time to discuss the genesis of the series – and some of the wonderful moments in the first four episodes currently available online. Before reading the interview, I suggest you first watch the first four episodes, which will be time well spent!

When previously asked about your inspiration for the series, you responded, “It came out of a desire to relive my early Dungeons & Dragons gaming experiences . . . we always had a lot of inter-party treachery, and I thought it was fun, and wanted to do a show based on that.” How would you describe the world of One Hit Die, and how does it relate to your early gaming experiences?

I grew up in a small town, and we played D&D and other games with very eclectic people. Everyone played with different ambitions, but it started to get fun when characters passed secret messages to the DM. It went like this:

  • Player A passes message to the DM
  • Player B asks, “What was that?”
  • Player A responds, “Your character wouldn’t know.”
  • Player B grumbles

Which is why I like focusing on the characters in One Hit Die, not just on their class and race. I started with the four standard classes, because what’s interesting is how people play them, and how that effects interactions with others.

So to sum it up, One Hit Die is not about games as much as it is about how people play them.

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My 4th Edition Mindset

Outside a smattering of voyages into a few modules from earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons when I was still a teenager, my tabletop roleplaying game experience has been shaped by 4th Edition D&D. It was not until this past weekend I realized how much 4th Edition has influenced my view of how games should play and run.

Readers of the blog will note that I have spent some time playtesting a new roleplaying game called Blade Raiders. The game is very different from 4th Edition D&D and it still feels great to play. During the start of a new campaign with the system, I found myself slipping into a “4e” mindset – for better and for worse. Below, I process a few observations about habits learned while playing (almost exclusively) 4th Edition over the past two-plus years and discuss our first session of a Blade Raiders campaign.

Building a Badass

When I created a character for our playtest earlier in the year, I experimented with the Blade Raiders system and chose a combination of non-magical and magical talents. I certainly wanted to create an effective character but I was more interested in learning the system and trying new approaches to character design. But for the campaign, the “4e switch” flipped in my head and I was dissecting the various talent options in a surgical fashion.

  • How can I get the greatest bonus to hit? 
  • How can I max out my damage per turn?
  • What talents will be most useful to me in the most circumstances?

Character optimization is not unique to 4th Edition D&D, but it is where I learned that craft! The Character Builder was (and remains to be) a wonderful tool to experiment with character creation; with a few clicks, one can see just how effective his or her character will be in combat and non-combat situations. It teaches the player the importance of statistical bonuses from a combination of skills, feats, traits and powers. And perhaps more importantly, it encourages and rewards that type of optimizing behavior. After all, why wouldn’t a player choose the options that produce the most damaging effects in combat?

Bryce Brevard, The Brigand of Burnigon
Bryce Brevard, The Brigand of Burnigon

So I examined he options in Blade Raiders and based my choices on the questions above. I chose talents that gave me bonuses to attack and damage rolls. I basically created a 4th Edition Striker in the Blade Raiders system. And my character, Bryce Brevard, was absolutely death on wheels. While I racked up kills and rejoiced in my ability to slay foes quickly, I experienced a creeping doubt that I was being “that guy.” You know, that guy on a basketball team that takes all the shots and celebrates the win by himself while his teammates look on in annoyance. It dawned on me that other people around the table were playing Blade Raiders – but in many ways, I was still playing 4th Edition D&D.

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The Future of Non-Ownership Is Now

Between the time I graduated high school in 1994 and completed graduate school in 2005, the concept of ownership drastically transformed into something else. Now in 2012, I not only cling to fond stories of obsolete technologies from my youth, but also a seemingly ancient sense of what it means to truly own something. It reminds me of the first lines in the film version of The Fellowship of The Ring:

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.

When my generation has aged and expired, it seems the concept of ownership will come to pass. No one will recall a time when an individual sought out real-world products, purchased them and physically took those products home to display them on shelves, desks and other storage centers. Media cabinets full of books, music albums and movies have already been replaced by such things and services as Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix and Hulu.

“For it shows things that were, and things that are, things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell. Do you wish to look?”

Over three years ago, the current Editor-in-Chief of The Scholarly Kitchen wrote about the Kindle and the freedom of not owning books:

Consider how many encyclopedias you’ve purchased in the past 20 years. Will you ever buy one again? Of course not. Wikipedia and Google have combined to make ownership of an encyclopedia irrelevant. The same thing is happening to atlases (Google Maps and GPS), and will soon start happening to cookbooks (Epicurious, anyone?) . . .

Ownership isn’t a panacea, especially in an age of information abundance. Will I be concerned if the Kindle dies and books I’ve read on it become inaccessible on that platform? Not really. If I want to read them again, there will be plenty of alternative ways in the future. And my bookshelves long ago stopped being my collection of known facts and resources . . .

Two of my favorite old Sherlock Holmes collections are on my Kindle — for free. A copy of “Moby Dick” typeset especially for the Kindle also held sway for a while. From classics to current bestsellers, I can wirelessly get books for free and for less.

And I don’t have to own them.

It is a common theme offered in support of the new concept of ownership – whether it be books, albums, movies or even video games. People are perfectly agreeable to not owning a product and are willing to enjoy the product for free or for less cost at their convenience. And how the new process of non-ownership will play out with tabletop roleplaying games is both unknown . . . and completely predictable.

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You’ve Been Terminated

During the past five weeks , I have moved out of a house, sold said house, closed down at one job, driven 1,200 miles and started a new job. And that’s the condensed version! One of the more challenging aspects of leaving my former hometown was saying goodbye to cherished friends and acquaintances. Since learning that I would be moving across the country, I have been terminating relationships left and right.

“And maybe it’ll be enough if you know that in the few hours we had together we loved a lifetime’s worth.” ~Sarah Connor

Termination is the somewhat unfortunate psychological term for the final phase of treatment with a client. For example, when a counselor is preparing to end therapy with a client he or she might say, “I’m about to terminate with Mrs. Jones” or “Mr. Jones and I only have three more sessions before termination.” Applied to my situation, I terminated with approximately 100 clients during the past two to three months. Ending a relationship with a client is a crucial portion of therapy, and it presents unique challenges.

I certainly gained a great deal of practice in termination. I have been a terminating machine!

As I prepared to leave town, I also had to terminate an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign, which had been running for over two years. I relied on many of the principles underlying appropriate clinical termination in a therapeutic relationship. Below, I describe how the process of termination can be best utilized to ensure a gaming group can end on the best possible terms.

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Achievements in Campaigning

With a great deal of dismay, I learned last week that our local Smoothie King is discontinuing their customer loyalty program and replacing it with something to be determined at a later date. It was a simple and standard program – buy a certain number of smoothies and you get one free. But this comes on the heels of them eliminating their $1.00-off coupon attached to each receipt from a purchased smoothie. Suddenly our friendly, local, neighborhood Smoothie King seemed to give in to corporate pressures. As I reluctantly enjoyed my Mangosteen Madness (Make It Skinny) smoothie, I pondered what their next customer loyalty program would entail. Giving myself periodic brain freeze, I wondered why more businesses did not try an achievement-based customer loyalty program.

Achievement Unlocked – Read 1 Post by Iddy the Lich

For those of you who do not play video games on a regular basis, Achievements are a predefined goal a player must reach. A game such as Mass Effect 3 will come with a list of achievements a player can earn throughout the course of one or multiple playthroughs of the game. Some of the achievements are earned during the normal course of playing the game; a player will earn multiple achievements simply by playing through the standard single-player campaign mode. But many achievements are meant to entice players to continue playing the game to earn more rewards – even if those rewards are primarily a means for self-gratification and impressing other gamers. I fell into the “I need to increase my Gamer Score trap” for a time and played games that no longer interested me for the sake of earning achievements; thankfully, those days are behind me.

Below, I present thoughts on how achievements can be constructed to be more enticing, meaningful and tangibly rewarding for customers of a business – even if that business is a D&D campaign and the customers are players attending gaming sessions. I conclude with how achievements could possibly be used with players in a D&D campaign to increase loyalty and overall participation in the campaign.

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Curse With Purpose

I have been hesitant to give out Artifacts and Cursed Items to players in my Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Artifacts have intimidated me to a certain degree since it is one more facet of the game the players and I would need to track. I did not want to add another complication to the plot of the adventure, which has admittedly gotten away from me at times during the campaign. I could also never figure out how to adequately roleplay an Artifact, although experiencing the Narrator from Bastion gave me a fantastic template to bring an Artifact to life. I did give the party an Artifact in recent months, but they have ignored it for the most part (another article for another day).

“You have my axe . . . no, really, please take the bloody thing before it kills me!”

As for Cursed Items, I have been intrigued by them since reading through examples of items curses in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111-115). I am hesitant to punish players, and giving a player a cursed item certainly imposes a penalty on the player receiving the item and the party because the player with the item is now less effective. In a recent interview Monte Cook discussed the dangers of avoiding all forms of punishment as a game designer and DM. In recent sessions, several factors came together to grant me to opportunity to introduce a cursed item into the campaign.

Below I detail the circumstances that led to me giving out a cursed item to the players. I discuss how I provided clues to the players that the item was not all it appeared to be and emphasis how the item  fit into the story of the campaign. I discuss how the players have handled the discovery of the cursed item and conclude with alternatives to the specific Removing An Item Curse rules listed in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111), which seem quite anticlimactic.

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Ego Check: Monte Cook, Game Designer & Author

This edition of Ego Check was a long time in the making. When I first contacted Monte Cook to request an interview, it was January and he was still the Design Lead for D&D Next. I was eager to speak with him about his Legends & Lore columns for Wizards of the Coast, but the interview was delayed for several reasons including yours truly traveling to Middle Earth for two weeks. I was able to reconnect with Monte Cook in April after his decision to leave the position at Wizards of the Coast. During the past six weeks, Monte has been incredibly gracious with his time to discuss his experiences in the RPG industry, which have spanned four decades.

Blizzards cannot dampen Monte Cook’s spirit.

Below, he talks about how the roleplaying game industry has changed but how the players have remained mostly the same. He describes his personal evolution as a game designer over the years, and details his thoughts on what makes a rule good in addition to the challenges of presenting appropriate rewards and punishments to players within a game. We discuss the costs and benefits of incorporating system mastery as a built-in reward for players, and conclude with a conversation about his current game design project.

I thank Monte for his time and thought-provoking responses, which provided me with quite an education in game design. I wish him the best of luck with his current project, and look forward to seeing a final product of his “old-school, weird-science fantasy” game system!

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The Tome Show: Player Engagement & DM Preparation

I was recently invited to participate in The Tome Show, a long-running podcast devoted to Dungeons & Dragons news, reviews, interviews, and advice. I joined hosts Jeff Greiner and Tracy Hurley to discuss the topics of player engagement during a session and DM preparation before a session. Before we launched into those topics, the hosts discussed news items and articles leading up to the release of D&D Next. Listen to Episode 195 of The Tome Show for all the magic!

Jeff, Tracy and I discussed the challenges of keeping all players engaged at the table during a gaming session. Players have access to a limitless source of entertainment with cellphones, tablets and laptops, and we detailed how we cope with the technology during sessions. I personally do not mind the use of phones and other gadgets during a game; I find it very useful to see when a player is “checking out.” It alerts me to do something to bring the player “back in” to the session. We also covered the characteristics of a “good” player. As a DM, my list is fairly short – attend reliably (I’m personally bad at this!), play nice with others and contribute to the game. When playing the game, I enjoy when other players are cooperative, respectful and not offering too much unsolicited advice on how to play my character. We all have our gaming pet peeves, including announcing another player’s die rolls. Don’t do that!

We pivoted to the topic of DM preparation, and how best to use the time between sessions to create a fun and interesting game. I liberally refer to Mike Shea’s recent survey on DM Preparation at Sly Flourish and discuss my struggles with the combination of thinking about my campaign too much but procrastinating on actually creating content for the next session. We all offered suggestions for how to effectively use preparation time, and I detailed how I am now preparing more flavor text and dialogue to make combat encounters more interesting and engaging for the players. It all comes full circle!

I want to thank Jeff and Tracy once again for inviting me onto The Tome Show; it was a great time! Be sure to add The Tome Show to your list of roleplaying game podcasts! Finally, I decided to add a Podcast Category to the blog since I have now appeared on several podcasts during the past year. For those who would like to hear more of my thoughts on gaming – often with a lean toward psychological issues for players and DMs – the interviews can now be found in one place.