Monday, December 31, 2012

How I do Google+ RPG Hangouts

I've tried many things with G+ RPGing, trying to get just the right mix of interaction and utility around the virtual "table." A friend recently asked me what I'd settled on.

Some people swear by 3rd party add-ons, including the excellent folks at .  (UPDATE: Since I wrote that last bit, I'm afraid Tabletop Forge is no longer your best bet, as they've gone away.)

However, I discovered that for my needs, less is more.  

Here's what works best for me:

Ahead of time, I gather art references, as available for a particular dungeon or session for the adventure in question, and put them in SkyDrive (Microsoft's free cloud stoarge service), which allows you to link individual pics via a public URL. (Dropbox and other services offer similar public links.)

I don't use minis, virtual or otherwise, but I do rely on sketching while describing settings and RPG battles; as a DM, I use pseudo Theatre of the Mind, with sketches as an aid.

I make such sketches on white board at my back while I play. Sometimes I cheat and use one at the office where I work, but I bought one at the store for around $18 for my home. I use the whiteboard to sketch the adventurer's progress in a dungeon (or other) setting, careful to make it large enough that A) it's visible through the g+ interace, and B) I can easily add general monster and PC placement if it becomes necessary to understand how a fight is progressing.

During play, everyone rolls their own dice, which requires trust  I suppose, but allows people to use the dice they love, and doesn't require me to force everyone to go through a dice emulator.

As play proceeds, I drop URLs of interesting pics (that I've uploaded to Skydrive, which creates public links), poems, or other pieces of text into the chat window.

I do use the Lower Third add-on, which some of my players also use, which is a great place to add the character's name and class, and even a picture.

This all seems to work like a charm! Even for casual gaming with my old high school friends who aren't game professionals.

I've gotten fancy in the past by logging in with a second computer/phone so that I could display a map on that, but frankly, the amount of juggling that required was a pain--the white board solution is, like Russian pencils in space, more robust.

I hope this inspires you to try a few g+ hangout games if you've been thinking about doing so. Good luck!


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Car Insurance Model for Guns (with tweaks)

No one blinks at the idea of liability insurance for our cars. If fact, most of us have been the beneficiary of mandatory liability insurance, after we’ve been rear-ended at a stoplight or suffered some other traffic mishap.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that our guns should also require liability insurance. In fact, we believe mandatory gun insurance is something that both responsible gun owners and non-gun owners alike could get behind. Why? Because of how it would work.

Just as with cars, this plan would require annual registration and liability insurance renewal through private insurance companies. And guess what? There’s already a precedent: the National Rifle Association offers liability insurance to members.

This solution offers many advantages that all well-meaning people on both sides of the debate can appreciate. For example, the insurance market is a proven expert at weighing risk. If they don’t already exist, a gun insurance mandate would quickly generate reams of actuarial tables devoid of anything but solid, dry, actual odds of a particular gun or a gun in a particular situation being used to hurt someone, and find an associated liability price.

Just as car insurance premiums are based on both the driver and the vehicle, so would gun insurance premiums. So someone from South Dakota who’s hunted during deer season for years without an accident would have a much smaller premium than a first-time buyer looking to own an assault rifle.

And just like with insurance, taking comprehensive training, owning biometric gun safes (or owning guns with trigger locks, or even smart guns), and not possessing more than one or two guns would decrease premiums. Other factors would include the magazine size of the weapon, the age of the gun owner, how many children the owner has living in the same home, previous criminal record, and so on.

All of this means that if someone wants an arsenal of semi-automatic rifles, they can still have it. But the civilization they’re part of will disincentivize that kind of bunker mentality through the hand of the market.

And of course, like regular liability insurance, gun liability would provide some restitution for those hurt by guns. (This is liability insurance, so it wouldn’t replace stolen or damaged guns--that's homeowner's insurance.)

We also believe that stiffer penalties for unreported gun theft would be useful. Just like with cars, all guns would have be registered so they can be tracked if they’re used in a crime. We suggest that if your weapon is lost or stolen, you have 24 hours to report it. If you fail to report it and your missing gun is used in a crime, your mandatory gun liability insurance rises steeply. Any shootings involving a weapon registered to you that you have not reported missing/stolen results in a punitive fine (and even higher insurance rates). In addition, a civil suit could be brought against you if firearms registered to you are used in the commission of a crime. But, your gun insurance would help you deal with such a possibility. Specifically, it would pay out to cover damages leveled against you if your gun is used in a crime, by anyone, to pay for your legal defense and for any fines or civil liabilities against you.

As an aside, introducing mandatory gun liability insurance doesn’t mean we can’t continue to enact other sensible measures designed to moderate gun violence. Another front should include closing loopholes in current law that allow private individuals to sell to one another online or at gun shows, at least not without some sort of simultaneous proof-of-insurance requirement. Yet another way to stem gun mayhem would be via a national gun buyback program, similar to the Australian policy, which would prove especially useful for people who come into the possession of guns they didn’t seek, such as when people who discover they’ve inherited several guns after the death of a relative, but don’t have the interest or means to deal with them.

Those hoping for an easy solution should be patient, because as with any realistic answer, gun liability insurance (and other measures noted above) will take time to enact, and more time for their effects to spread to all corners of the nation. But this is a start. And over time, mandatory gun insurance would lessen the likelihood of both parking lot gun aggression by adult against adult, and more importantly, mass killings of kindergarten children in their classrooms.

The foregoing policy recommendation evolved following the events at Sandy Hook and other recent mass shootings, and incorporates the feedback from my social network and friends. If you think it is viable, do what I've done, and contact the vice president and your representatives with this proposal.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Morality Guide

I love this Tom the Dancing Bug comic. It's funny; funny in the sense that if I didn't laugh, I'd cry, I suppose.

The graphic isn't really a morality guide, as many of you already fully appreciate. It's a behavior map most of us follow naturally, courtesy of our genes. Which isn't morality; it's our pre-programmed baseline. Moral acts occur when we choose to act differently than our DNA prompts, by expanding a "Who We Are Nice To" category.

The End.

If you're curious about my reasoning, read on. However, just to forewarn you, I fall back on a few SAT words.

For someone to make a moral act, he or she must recognize their own baseline, gene-driven inclination, then choose to broaden a category from Tom's guide. For example, by broadening those we view as part of our Community to encompass a larger fraction of Outsiders, we've made a moral decision. Likewise, by shifting pets and primates, and other mammals and animals up some faction of a category in Tom's guide, we've determined to act morally. (As with anything, if category expansion is taken to extremes, you could go from making a moral decision to making a commitment for a stay at the funny farm.)

All that said, none of us decide how we'll act in a vacuum. The culture in which we are raised is bursting with ideas on ways to behave. However, you can look at them through the filter of ideas that cajole us to broaden these categories, and through a filter that that demand that we keep to category baseline, or even push outsiders into a lower category.

You've heard of the Golden Rule, most likely, which is a major driver of category expansion. Many religions teach some form of this. However, you've probably run up against various "fear the foreigner" meme, which drives category contraction.

Anyway, you've probably incorporated some of these category expansion ideals into your own behavior. Whenever you act according to the Golden Rule in a category outside what your genes demand of you, you're making a moral act. By my lights, it doesn't matter whether you chose to act this way or your culture inculcated you to act differently and more benevolently--that's the benefit of living within an evolving culture! On the other hand, and again by my lights, if you've inculcated less benevolent memes, that's an immoral choice, regardless of what your culture expects. "When in Rome," or "just following orders" doesn't cut it, when you're defining morality.

Otherwise, I agree with Tom the Dancing Bug, broadly speaking, being "nice" is being moral, but only if you've somehow broadened your "Who You're Nice To" category beyond what brute instinct would have you act to preserve your own kin and kind.

Friday, August 31, 2012

PAX 2012

In addition to walking about geeking out on Saturday, I'm appearing on a couple novel-related panels at PAX this weekend. You can bet that many of the examples I cite will be from Sword of the Gods and it's sequel, Spinner of Lies.

 2PM Saturday (9/1): Making Magic Work: Designing Magic Systems for Games and Books moderated by pro editor and Amazon columnist Susan J. Morris, with special guest New York Times Bestselling author and game designer Rich Baker, award-winning game designer and author Bruce R. Cordell, and award-winning author Erin M. Evans.

8PM Saturday (9/1): How to Craft a Damn Good Fight Scene for Games and Books moderated by pro editor and Amazon columnist Susan J. Morris, with special guest award-winning game designer and author Bruce R. Cordell, award-winning author Erin M. Evans, and author and game designer Erik Scott de Bie.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Future of "Small" Solar

Military action requires power and energy. This traditionally means transporting the necessary power over long distance to where the action lies. In the USA's last two elective wars, this "expensive and dangerous transport of  gasoline and batteries took place in areas where the sun is beaming down unfathomable quantities of free energy. That fact has not been lost on the Pentagon."

Which means that like "the computer, the internet, the mobile phone and GPS" which all had a leg-up by the Pentagon, the military's latest fascination with "small" solar could mean, ironically, a boon for everyone down the road.

(oh, and btw--sign me up for an Electree!)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Planetfest Mars Curiosity Rover Coverage

If you're not watching the Planetary Society's coverage of the Mars Curiosity Rover landing coverage, why not?

Here you go!

And, while you're listening, play with this too: Eyes on the Solar System! It's is a great way to see Mars. Check it out:

And of course, there's this minute-long explanation of the whole kit-n-kaboodle!

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Half-orcs have been part of D&D since 1978. Have you ever played one? What'd you like about it, and if not, what's kept you away?

If you'd like to answer, click here!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

High Level D&D Pitfalls

What're some of the pitfalls of "high" (11th+) D&D tabletop level play you've encountered, either as a player or a dungeon master?

For me, it was spending more than one round stunned, petrified, asleep, or otherwise out of the game without any possibility of relieving that condition.

If you'd like to comment, join the conversation here!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Spinner of Lies DOT COM!

As of yesterday, I was the proud new owner of As of today, the DNS has propagated across the net, and it actually works. That ought to be worth a couple geek points, right?

Truth to tell, the website existed before yesterday, and points there too. But with the purchase of the url and a tweak of the banner, it's clear that I'm talking about 2, two, TWO novels!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

You Can Find Me on g+

I am trying out the "g+ diet" in that most of my blogging, at least my entries that are not specifically for D&D Next, can be found on my g+ site: -

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Advantage of Rolling Dice

Advantage (and disadvantage) debuted in the May 24th D&D playtest as a game mechanic simulating a creature having an edge (or a hindrance) to an attack, task, or other effort. Prior to the playtest release, the design team experimented with several methods of achieving advantage/disadvantage. Each had their strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately we decided we wanted to test an aggressive version with the initial rules: When you have advantage on an attack or other suitable d20 roll, roll twice and use the higher result. (Or, roll twice and take the lower result if you have disadvantage.)
One of the potential drawbacks we worried about was the mechanic’s novelty. Was it too wild a twist on player expectations? And, possibly too significant an actual mathematical bonus (or penalty)?
On the other hand, possible strengths of the mechanic include the very same two points: it’s a novel, exciting way to model having some kind of an edge (or hindrance), and the effect is big and meaty enough to really matter when it does apply.
An even more important strength of the roll-twice method is to reduce on-the-fly math at the table. A numerical mechanic requires a player to add at least 3 numbers together with each roll: the roll result + an already-calculated attack bonus (or ability modifier) + the advantage bonus (a +2 or +3, say). Everyone can do this sort of math of course, but each additional number that’s added or subtracted makes the calculation slower, and over the course of play, slows the game. Math is hard.
Finally, an obvious strength of the current advantage system is simply that it’s fun to roll dice.
Now the playtest is out. Those of you running Caves of Chaos and the pregenerated characters are using the mechanic. A surprisingly high number of you (our survey pros tell us) filled out and returned the survey included with the release (thank you). We were excited to see a greater than 70% approval rating for the current mechanic.
Of course it’s early days, and this is a playtest after all. We already know we need to tweak advantage/disadvantage a bit. At the very least, we need to very carefully think about appropriate places to apply it, and more importantly, places where its application is just a bad idea. In fact, that later point is important. While dice rolling is fun, too much dice rolling isn’t.
For instance, consider a spell that could inflict blanket disadvantage to a creature for a minute. What if that creature has a claw/claw/bite attack routine? Is suddenly becomes too many dice to ask the DM to roll. Imagine if that same spell applied to a group of monsters for a minute. Even worse. Likewise, awarding blanket advantage to monsters encountered in large numbers can also quickly become a pain.

Going forward, a design and development rule of thumb might be something like (what Rodney Thompson said to me over the cube wall between our desks): a player or creature should (generally speaking) expend an action to gain advantage or bestow disadvantage. I couldn’t agree more. In your playtests, try that as a guiding principle, and see how it works out.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ranger Design Goals

High level goals for ranger design for the next edition of D&D? Here they are! (or, here they were at any rate).

1. The Ranger is a Wilderness Hunter and Tracker
Rangers are at home in the uncharted wilds, whether those wilds be darkling forests, mountain badlands, or sunless deeps.
   In their guise as trackers, rangers are both stealthy and alert. They’re able to track a falcon on a cloudy day and find useful herbs. They are wary of potential trails, or ambushes.
   In their guise as hunters, rangers can choose to focus on an individual quarry, whereupon their hunter’s instincts kick in, allowing them to strike with enhanced lethal force.

2. The Ranger is a Warrior
Rangers wear light armor appropriate for stalking prey, and are adept with martial weapons. Having learned many hard lessons in the wild, rangers are tougher than other people, and better able to withstand hurts. Many rangers focus on a particular combat style, traditionally two weapon fighting or archery, and do so via an appropriate theme.  

3. The Ranger is a Protector
Rangers revere nature, and are often called to protect individual trees or creatures, groves or packs, or fey creatures. However, rangers can protect creatures who are out of place in the wilderness, serving not only as a guide, but also as a personal defender against threats both natural and unnatural.

4. Rangers are Friends With Wild Creatures
Natural beasts are generally well disposed toward rangers and vice versa, as reflected in a ranger’s natural ability to befriend animals. Rangers have the option to form a deeper bond with a given animal by gaining its trust and loyalty, allowing it to aid the ranger as a scout, informant, or provide some other useful service. With each new animal a ranger bonds with, the ranger’s understanding and appreciation of the natural world grows.

5. Additional Notes

A ranger who wants to be really good at two-weapon fighting or archery does so by choosing the themes suggested for the ranger (tempest or archer). And a ranger who wants a companion animal that’s a competent combat ally chooses the beastmaster theme.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Spy Who Fireballed Me

The release of the playtest and blogs such as Wizard with a License to Kill [link] and Backgrounds and Themes [link] generated forum discussions, feedback, and questions about backgrounds and themes. Many of the questions asked about our current approach to how skills deliver backgrounds and themes deliver feats.
First, I’m gratified that some people noticed the  pregenerated character sheet note beneath the Background and Theme columns, and decided to try it out. Apparently they played a game with a more “old school feel” with great success. Already our goal of providing modular play is proving amenable.
However, most of you did use the backgrounds and themes provided. So to help answer some of the questions about them, I’d like you to introduce you to the human wizard named Seren. Seren has the Spy background (not that she’s told anyone), and the Magic User theme.
A background is something Seren, and all other characters, comes to the table with—her background is who she was, and still is. All the skills and the single trait provided by a background are delivered immediately upon selection, regardless of level. Which means the “handler” trait (could potentially be) provided by the Spy background is immediately useful to Seren. Every so often, a mysterious contact (the “handler”) answers Seren’s questions, when she can find him. Other times he approaches Seren with tantalizing information that leads her on new adventures. (For instance, her handler recently left a cryptic note about something called “The Sundering.”) In addition to her handler, Seren’s Spy background might provide her skills such as Bluff, Disguise, and Decipher Script, all of which make her slightly better at doing things she could’ve attempted without training (but when you’re a Spy, every little bit helps).
As earlier noted, Seren also has the Magic User theme. A theme reflects the manner in which she (and other characters) interact with the world. So as she gains experience and knowledge, her theme grows with her, adding to her expertise over time. As the rules iteration currently stand, a theme is how a character gains feats. Like earlier editions, feats offered by a theme come at specified levels. Currently, we’ve set the default for feat acquisition at character levels 1, 3, 5, and so on. Which means that Seren, when portrayed as a 5th level D&D character, has 3 feats. Her 1st level feat gives her two extra minor spells, her third level feat gives her a familiar (Seren likes ravens), and her 5th level feat gives her a flourish with a favorite spell. In Seren’s case, it’s fireball, baby!
Race and class do not provide skills or feats in the current rules iteration. Skills (and 1 trait) are provided in a story package called background, and feats (and a level progression) are provided in a story package called theme. If you want to run a game using skills and feats but let players pick and choose their own mix, you’d use the same framework. But the guidelines we’d provide for such a ‘total customization option’ would tell you to encourage your players to create with their own background that matched the skills they chose, and their own theme to explain the feats.

And so Seren infiltrates a mysterious temple using a disguise to impersonate a priest, her raven to provide additional intel, her training in deception to fool those who question her presence, and finally her flourish with fireball when, on the brink of discovery, she launches an explosive distraction to make good on her escape.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Paladin Design Goals

Paladins have a long history in D&D. For many, the image of the Paladin in Hell from the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook remains a favorite. Anyone can see immediately from the illustration that a paladin is a warrior at home in heavy armor, and capable of wielding a sword and shield. And by the nature of the hellish foes the paladin faces, it’s clear that not only does the paladin oppose evil, but in pursuit of that calling, the paladin is apparently fearless.
        The design team has iterated a few times on the paladin class, but we wanted to step back and present to you our broader design goals that meet the class criteria of being recognizable to D&D players, unique from other classes, and resonate in some fashion with an archetypical story.
        The following design goals are generally listed in importance to the character, though we feel they’re all important for shaping a paladin. As you’ll notice, I’ve actually slipped a few hints of mechanical design in with the broader design goal, which serve more as examples than as anything we’ve definitely fixed on.
1. The Paladin is a Champion of a Divine Calling
A paladin follows a personal code that is a reflection of the deity, and often even more significantly, a moral alignment. Though many paladins are lawful good, the particular virtues a paladin reveres can reflect nearly any moral attitude or divine calling (though such adherence means that a paladin is at least lawful). A paladin’s codes also usually point her toward an ascetic lifestyle, which speaks to a paladin’s selfless nature in pursuit of her calling.
2. A Paladin Can See and Smite Evil
A paladin knows when something twisted and unholy is near. While unable to unerringly zero in on a specific threat merely by walking past a structure infested with evil, a paladin knows something is wrong. Regardless of a given creature’s actual nature, a paladin can judge it unworthy, and smite it with divine power energizing her sword blow.
3. A Paladin is a Fearless and Selfless Warrior
The paladin is a warrior, nearly as skilled as a fighter and typically armed with heavy armor and a sword, and utterly without fear. When a paladin fights, it is not only to impose her code on the unworthy and slay threats to her divine calling, but also to protect her allies. More so than the fighter, the paladin is willing (and able) to sacrifice her own safety to ensure the safety of her companions. To this end, a paladin aspires to find a blessed sword of unequaled power: a holy avenger.
4. A Paladin Has Divine Abilities and Spells

As a servant of a higher calling and deity, a paladin can call on a variety of divine abilities, including the ability to heal allies with a touch (“lay on hands”), turn undead, cast a limited number of divine spells, and call a mount. In each case, the paladin’s divine ability diverges from similar abilities a cleric might have, speaking to the paladin’s strengths. For example, when a paladin calls a mount, that mount might inspire the normal mounts of the paladin’s allies, granting them speed and endurance while they travel together. When a paladin turns undead, she can also turn demons, devils, and other unholy creatures. And when a paladin lays on hands, the healing may also relieve malign conditions and spent stamina.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Goblins Care Only About Your Axe

(It took a bit of digging to find this--I pulled it up from the Wayback Machine!)

I’ve played a lot of D&D lately. But even when using rules prone to design iteration, one thing has remained constant throughout: When I swing my axe at a goblin neck, the goblin’s going down if I hit.

That’s true whether the fight occurs in the theater of the mind (TotM), in TotM with the aid of scratch paper to show general position, in a hybrid TotM-minis system, or with minis on a grid.

As was pointed out by my previous blog about the grid vs. imagination and the discussions it engendered, the system surrounding my goblin combat can dramatically change many other elements of the fight. The foremost difference is the amount of table time the fight takes to resolve overall, and the amount of tactical decision-making the environment provides my axe-wielding goblin killer.

The tension between these two elements is real, and it can’t be swept under the rug. Narratively speaking, sometimes it’s simply too much effort to break out the minis and gridded terrain map to deal with two goblin guards at a cave mouth. The “story” of the situation isn’t really about tactics, unless the DM specifically changes the encounter to make it so. Indeed, two guards at a doorway (and other “low power” encounters) are precisely the sort of encounters that grid-only combat tends to weed out of the game. Because the DM and adventure designer know it’s not worth the effort to break out minis for a simple interaction with two goblin guards (or even five goblin guards), the encounter either goes away entirely, or it faces pressure to become part of some other, larger encounter. This means that players, when they see minis on the table, always know it’s going to be some kind of fight, regardless of anything else.

Other times, the story is about tactics. I do want to exactly know where the vampire lord is in relation to the acid pit, the windows through which afternoon sunlight slashes, the vampire’s dominated spell-casting thralls, and her various spawn slinking through an advancing line of rolling mist. Pushing or being pushed 5 feet can make the difference between winning and losing this fight, depending on whether I’ve been pushed into the acid, or if I can push the vampire into the sunlight.

Based on the poll we conducted on my last grid-focused blog, a majority of you agrees that different encounters have different needs when it comes to encounter rules. That’s cool, because we feel the same way. Assuming we move forward with this line of thinking, we’ll end up with a core conflict resolution system that can encompass both TotM and the grid. Imagine a combat system not too different from previous editions that relied almost solely on the use of the grid, but tweaked so that it works seamlessly for those fights where minis are not used or expected.

This means, to answer one line of questions raised in the grid discussions, that switching between TotM and the grid must be easy and seamless, both for groups that prefer to switch between modes, and for groups who want to primarily stick to one or the other conflict resolution system. It’s not our job to pick a winner or loser in any sort of false “grid vs. TotM” contest, and thereby create a sub-group of D&D players who don’t have the rules support they deserve. Instead, it’s our job to create a straightforward environment where both styles of play prosper and can be used.

For instance, if a fighter uses an ability that seems to make sense on the grid, we should design that same ability to also be useful in the TotM. In a fight that takes place next to a curtain of green slime, even in TotM, it’s not as important how far I can push a foe with an ability as it is important that I can push a foe at all. If my “hack and shove maneuver” results in the goblin stumbling backward, then, regardless of distance in feet or whether this happens on the grid or in the players’ imaginations, the goblin has just discovered that green slime is not its friend.

Goblins Care Only About Your Axe

My axe kills goblins dead, regardless of the underlying game mechanics. 

"Goblins Care Only About Your Axe" is my latest D&D Next blog, where I touch on potential tension between describing fights wholly in the imagination for one combat, and using minis on a battle-grid in the next combat.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Variations on a Monstrous Theme

If you’re a publisher with a stable of game-designers on payroll, an easy way to create variation for a monster is to write up one or two alternate versions of that monster. For example, were I to write up a vampire monster manual entry, I’d start by creating the basic expression of the vampire. A vampire that fulfills the “vampire Platonic ideal” that most anyone might look at, and say, “Yup, that’s a vampire.”

However, thanks to decades of novels, television shows, anime, comics, and games that feature vampires, we know many variations are possible. So, in writing my hypothetical vampire Monster Manual entry, after I designed the vampire noted above, I’d also create a couple full-fledged vampire variations, with full stats. One would probably be the more “fragile” vampire spawn, who enjoys only a subset of the vampire’s strengths, and for whom a stake in the heart does more than render them dead, but might turn them instantly to ash. On the the other end of the scale, I’d write up the “vampire lord” that encompassed the idea of the far more powerful vampire elder who, thanks to a thousand (or several thousand) years of undeath, has achieved several orders more kick-ass-itude than the already powerful standard vampire.

The question is, how do I create such variations? One way is to apply a few levels of a player character class. This has the advantage of handing a very robust toolbox to DMs and game designers, a toolbox that leverages the strengths of a very detailed and multi-faceted system already used by players to create different characters.

This system also has its drawbacks. While using character creation rules for monsters provides a massive toolbox of options, it also invokes a time-intensive process for monster design where finished monsters can objectively be judged, thanks to the expectations created by our own rules, to be “right” or “wrong,” regardless of how fun and exciting that monster plays at the table. This precision for precision’s sake also creates a raft of anxiety on the part of conscientious Dungeon Masters and game designers who, of course, want to follow the rules of monster creation.
So what then?
Many things, actually. In fact, the more tools we throw into the mix, the better, as long as we dispense with the idea that monsters can “right” or “wrong.” Instead, judge monsters on how interesting, fun, and challenging they are to encounter in a game of D&D. Many monsters that are precisely “right” according to numerically absolute creation rules fail the ‘interesting, fun, and challenging” test.
Using the “is it fun and interesting?” criteria, we’ve got a ton of ways to alter monsters at our disposal. The first is writing hard-coded variations right into the Monster Manual entry. Another method we’re experimenting with is to include a mini-theme or two in some Monster Manual entries, where appropriate, that the DM could apply on the fly to a given monster. Such a theme wouldn’t be transformative enough for a monster to require a completely new statblock, but adding the indicated power to some subset of the monsters encountered would be enough to keep players on their toes. For instance, a mini-theme in the bugbear entry might be “bugbear strangler” which provides a method for DMs to give some subset of bugbears an ability to garrote a foe. The same mini-theme would indicate such a bugbear might be worth 25 XP more than a regular bugbear. A mini-theme for an orc might give it a ‘vicious finale’ attack that gives an orc a free last attack when it’s dropped. And so on.

Finally, I could imagine a section in the DMG, and related section in other more specific setting books, that would provide a whole slew of mini-themes, templates, and other methods to give Dungeon Masters robust and encompassing methods for varying any monster, or building new ones. Either way, hijacking some subset of character creation rules for monster inspiration (I’m looking at you themes and backgrounds[BRC2] ) remains a gold mine. For example, a vampire with the avenger theme.... wow. The story that sparks in my brain makes me want to start working on my campaign this very insta

Friday, May 4, 2012

Wizard with a License to Kill

Some of Rob’s latest blogs have described a possible approach to D&D character construction, using themes and backgrounds (Backgrounds and Themes, and A Closer Look [links]). As we continue to consider the benefits of such an approach, we must also consider the implications.
Of course, backgrounds and themes nicely serve players who want to follow an obvious “through line” of character creation. Someone who wants to play a fighter will discover all the puzzle pieces neatly fit together to create a dwarf fighter with a soldier background and the slayer theme, assuming all those components are in play at a particular DM’s table.
However, themes and backgrounds also give a character of one class access to “the feel” that’s traditionally been in the keeping of another class. For instance, if I wanted a spy character, in many editions I’d either play rogue/thief, or multiclass my non-rogue character into rogue/thief to gain access to those kinds of benefits.
As things stand in our current design iteration, I could create an elf wizard with the spy background without multiclassing, and play a secret an agent of Thay, on the road to learn what I can in a foreign land, and just perhaps, sow discord and unrest in my path. (And if I liked to wear red, I’d of course disguise it.)
Yes, I know a wizard of any edition could act like a spy, to great and wonderful effect. But if I want mechanics that help me stay disguised or deceive others, then the spy background provides those benefits.
One question that this design question creates that we’ve noticed gain a lot of traction in the forums is this: What separates theme and background options from full blown multiclassing?
The answer is actually simple--every class we design must have a core identity and handful of related mechanics so fundamental to that class that only the class itself and the features it offers can reasonably grant it. So, sure I could play a wizard with a spy background. But if I want a spy who’s also handy with a knife in the back and also incredibly stealthy, I’ll multiclass into rogue as well.

Themes and backgrounds can provide great through lines, and at the same time allow wonderful ways to modify the feel and play of your character. However, multiclassing will remain as the method for changing the way your character plays at an even more fundamental level. It’s one thing to be a wizard spy. It’s another thing to be a wizard/fighter spy, or more devious yet, a wizard/assassin spy...