Note: I’ve included Twitter handles for a lot of people, because I know a lot of you know these folks, just not by actual name.
A few of us from Critical-Hits were at D&D Experience this year. Matt Dukes (Vanir, or @direflail) was there as a civilian and regular ol’ gamer representative. Shawn Merwin (@shawnmerwin) attended as a DM and writer. I went as a DM and administrator for the Ashes of Athascampaign. Dave Chalker (@DavetheGame) got trapped in DC on his way to the show, so he didn’t make it. We missed him.
Lots of conventions, from PAX to Comicpalooza, have D&D games and organized play. None of them are like D&D Experience. This convention is about hardcore D&D gaming and D&D news. It’s all D&D all the time on official channels. Players who come here come to play the game from sunup until the witching hour. When they’re not playing, they’re learning more about D&D from the experts.
I got in early in the afternoon on Wednesday, and I snagged my “Judges Kit.” In it was my schedule, printed versions of the adventures I was running, an RPGA D&D shirt, and coolest of all, the upcoming Deluxe DM Screen. (See a little of it in the picture here; snag yours on or after February 15th.) I supplemented with a roll of Gaming Paper for maps, which I drew at the show.Read More »
Madison, South Dakota might seem like a typical small Midwestern town. In some ways it is. But it’s also the home of a Dakota State University and the school’s Computer Game Design program. The DSU Gaming Club puts on a gaming shindig every year, and this legendary event is known as Nanocon.
Nanocon isn’t just a gathering to facilitate gaming of all types, which it does. It’s also an educational event for the students at DSU. I was invited last year as a representative for Wizards of the Coast, among such design luminaries as the wise and skilled Jeff Tidball (a freelancer for Fantasy Flight, Atlas Games, and countless others) and the incorrigible cad Richard Dansky (White Wolf, Red Storm Entertainment, and novelist responsible for Firefly Rain). It was a great time, and I must have done something right, because they invited me back.
This year, the roster was filled with a few more experts, such as:
• Jeff Tidball was back, bringing with him a playtest version of a board game based on the well-known RPG [name redacted]. I was lucky enough to play the prototype. To me, Jeff’s version captured the essence of the RPG better than the original did at times. Sure, like Jeff himself said, there were no intense roleplaying moments, but it as great themed fun. Perhaps we’ll revisit it when the game is released and my NDA no longer applies.
• Jeff McGann, lately of Red Storm but on his way to Irrational Games and work on Bioshock Infinite. Jeff knows a thing or a thousand about the “hellish world” AAA game design. Primary in my mind, as a designer of D&D, is his take on accessibility or lack thereof. Your game has to let people in, and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter how cool the second act is. Too few people will see that act. D&D has lacked real accessibility for long enough that the problem transcends editions. Maybe the new red box helps, but I don’t think Essentials does. My point here is that most D&D players are inducted into the game without having to climb the complexity curve alone. Maybe more on that later.
• Matthew Weise of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, researcher on game history with emphasis on Metal Gear Solid, zombies, and first-person RPGs. As a fan of stealth games, I appreciated Matt’s analysis of the Metal Gear franchise. See Game Verbiage below for more on Matt.
• Clara Fernandez, also of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, is a researcher on adventure games, puzzle design, and dream logic in games, as well as stories in simulated environments. Maybe it’s obvious to others how puzzle design for a game is so much like overall adventure design, but I found that focus insightful. Puzzles have to provide enough information and hooks to keep players moving forward and satisfied with that progress, otherwise frustration sets in. Without a social reason to continue investing, most players just quit. Our adventures need to do the same while providing enough “imagination space” to allow DMs and players to personalize the experience. I think this is what modern D&D adventures lack, as Mike Shea has intimated.
• Kevin Rohan, the Content Director for Silver Gryphon Games. He also knows how to mix genres in Savage Worlds. As a player of Grover, mean with a pair of .44 revolvers, in Kevin’s “Fist Full of Muppets” scenario, I should know. Kevin and I also gave a presentation about sandbox adventure design, and it was pretty cool. Try to create a scenario with a nonlinear progression for the proactive player characters. Then include villains that plan intelligently and move forward. The characters have to thwart the villain’s agenda, or meet their own goals, while the antagonists do the same. It’s a lot more interesting than monsters that wait to be killed in a site that changes only when PCs appear, let me tell you.
Back to School
I was in Madison early on Friday, so I had the pleasure of going to a couple classes. Jeff Howard—a professor at DSU and author of Quests—invited me to his class on combat systems and magic systems. The students presented various combat systems for their games, and I was allowed to give some feedback. I also got to go to a projects class and witness some damn cool games designs in progress, and the students were kind enough to explain the concepts to me, even though everyone else in the room already knew the project story and parameters.
How is this useful to you? One thing I felt over and over again, and said in various ways, was that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. That’s your elevator pitch right there. And if you don’t have an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. (Steve Jackson Games writer guidelines put it another way. You need to be able to write the back cover’s sell text for your game. If you can’t, work on your idea more.)
I also felt, here and when I was evaluating pitches for D&D Insider, that most budding designers need to push ideas further and go for meaningful play. Find the unique aspects of the vision you’re after, then push them to the fore. Make sure your mechanics and narrative reward the behavior you want. Every feature of your game should have a reason for some or all players to engage that aspect. If not, then the feature is a lie. This applies to DMing from monster design to encounter design to adventure design to campaign design.
All Fluxed Up
For the game room, I came up with a Gamma World scenario based on Madison, DSU, and South Dakota wildlife. I called it Deshoo Snipe Hunt, and here’s the premise: Winter is coming. The tiny plains village of Deeshoo is finishing up the harvest and the autumnal hunts before the alpha snows block the trade route to Soox Falls. It couldn’t be a worse time for raiders to move into an old bunker on the far side of Lake He-man. The Dragon Slayers United (DSU), Deeshoo’s elite protectors, went out to deal with the raiders a few days ago. They never came back. Now a giant sword-beaked fowl with an entourage of blood birds is picking off Deshoo hunters, residents, and livestock and carrying them east. Looks like a job for the DSU auxiliary. That’s you.
Cool thing is that I got to play this scenario twice, although only once all the way through. The first time through was with four players, all of whom had humanoid mutant characters except for the player of Sunflower, which was a sentient commune of dandelions. The second game included Steve Graham, a DSU professor; Allen Thiele one of the Nanocon organizers; Jeff Howard, Jeff Tidball, and Jeff McGann. After hearing Kevin Rohan and I speak on adventure design, the last Jeff was so eager to play in one of my tabletop games that he bought new dice. As if I weren’t ecstatic enough with a table full of smart gamers, Jeff’s enthusiasm was no small compliment coming from such a smart designer. Gamma World got positive reviews all around.
I also learned a few things about the game.
• It’s all right to allow players to assign an 18 and a 16 to ability scores even if they have origins that have the same ability score. In fact, it can work better than raising one score to 20 if the player wants or needs the character to use weapons. It also behooves you to make sure every character that lacks at-will mutant powers has a reasonable score in an ability that facilitates weapon attacks. You might even want to go to a 4d6-drop the lowest scheme for other ability scores. This still allows for some low rolls, which players in my games latched onto as roleplaying opportunities.
• 1d4+1 rolls on the Starting Gear table is about 1d4 too many. The Starting Gear Table has too few options for every character at the table to have three rolls on it. Instead, give each character one roll, then another roll or two on the Ancient Junk Table, and call it good. Believe me, the Ancient Junk table is where it’s at for fun gear possibilities. I mean, how else do you get an android to throw his wireless mouse and use his Interaction skill to pretend he just threw a high-tech grenade?
• Alpha Flux is awesome. You might look at the rules for changing Alpha Mutations and dislike the randomness and changeability, but it works. Further, the players not only get it, given a simple explanation of the Gamma World setting, they also seem to love it. They especially love when they’ve used one Alpha Mutation, roll a natural 1, and receive a new mutation for the trouble. I’d even go so far as to recommend putting terrain or monster powers in every few encounters to make Alpha Flux different and, preferably, more common.
As an aside, Alpha Flux can be used to explain any kind of weirdness in Gamma World. Gamma Terra provides narrative underpinning for real-life complications. For instance, if you’re running a campaign and a player fails to show, his or her character might simply disappear for a while in a reality-altering wave of flux. He or she might even reappear with full knowledge of what transpired in the supposed absence.
• Ignore Omega Tech card drawing. Instead, give out Omega Tech like treasure, even allowing enemies to use the tech first or have it on them. As an experiment, I ignored the drawing rules for Omega Tech and gave it out (randomly) piecemeal over the course of my encounters. Doing tech distribution this way allows the players to decide who takes which treasure. It also allows you to control, to an extent, the number of tech powers that might enter play at any one time. Plus, describing the discovery of Omega Tech is more fun this way.
Matt Weise gave a workshop that was, for lack of a better word, amazing. The premise is simple: Take an intellectual property, such as The Wizard of Oz. Then reduce that IP to the verbs related to it. From those verbs, you come to the essence of what a game about that IP might include in the gameplay. The results can be surprising.
I was playing my Welcome to Dark Sun adventure (for the seventh time) when Matt started, so I didn’t participate. (The players in that game did very, very well, which I think might have something to do with my communication as a DM.) I watched. Matt and I talked while the teams worked on their IPs (The Wizard of Oz and The A-Team).
The technique might seem simple. It is. But how many games miss this simplicity? An example we spoke of is the James Bond IP. How many James Bond games are about the varied aspects of spying? Most are themed shooters that involve only the most action-oriented aspects of the Bond franchise. These games miss the chance to incorporate other aspects of the IP, and perhaps thereby, miss the opportunity to attract a wider variety of players. Matt accurately pointed out that the Hitman games involve more deceptive tactics than numerous Bond games.
A lot of designers can benefit from learning and following this sort of thinking. I know I did.
Small Con Experience
Nanocon’s magic is in its intimacy. It presents a great opportunity to meet players and play games. As a guest, I also had the chance to mingle with all the other guests, as well as the faculty and organizers. That type of interaction with others who love games is hard to overvalue. Perhaps needless to say, I’m glad I went. I’ll say a little more about what I did there later.
I received the same email that prompted Vanir to write his article on Cameron McNary’s play. Maybe I shouldn’t reveal this, but I read emails such as Cameron’s. I’m afraid I’ll miss something if I don’t. In the case of “Of Dice and Men” I was dead right.
Confidently, I arrived at the Unicorn Theatre at around 6:45 PM. The show was supposed to start at 7:30, so I figured I’d be able to get a seat even if I had to wait in line. Boy was I wrong. A queue had formed that already included more folks than the theater could hold. Cameron later told me, if I remember correctly, that they had to turn away around two hundred people. (My old nemesis Fire Code, we meet again.)
Those who know me know I can be bold. Besides, I really wanted to see this play about the Dungeons & Dragons game. I asked the PAX Enforcers—bless ’em—at the door to see if Cameron might let me steal a seat. Someone—Cameron or his wife, Maureen, the managing director—decided to have pity on me. I got in.
The play was unbelievable. I mean that in the incredibly good sense.
Cameron is humble to call this a play about D&D. “Of Dice and Men” tells the story of John Francis (the DM, played by Cameron). A narrative about John Francis possibly giving up gaming frames his relationships with the D&D game and the people it brought into his life. The play hinges on the fact that John Francis is leaving the area for a new job. Before he can tell his gaming group, Jason, a longtime friend and player, reveals he has enlisted and will be leaving . . . during wartime.
The show is a wonderful mixture of fun anecdotes, which any longtime roleplaying gamer might recognize, and stirring interactions between the players. We, the viewers, have the privilege of enjoying the D&D characters’ introductions and exploits in the game, as well as the real-life interactions of the John Francis and his friends. When the funny and the gamey ends, the raw dealings among the characters begins. This is a story in which relationships outside the game are not only realistic, but are also affecting and easy to relate to.
I’ve had experiences like those the play depicts, down to having friends enlist and leave my life in a scary way for a while. Heck, I even met my wife through a gaming buddy. “Of Dice and Men” is my story. Countless personal accounts I’ve heard and read over the years tell me that the play is your story, too. It’s also a tale that people who don’t share our passion for gaming can appreciate. The play depicts normal, complicated people who care deeply for one another and share interests. That’s easy to understand. That’s all of us.
“Of Dice and Men” made PAX for me. For laughter and tears, nothing else compared. Cameron McNary, the actors, and the crew should be proud. They deserved the packed house and the standing ovation they got.
You must see and become involved with this play if you ever have a chance. Several ways exist to do so. First, Critical Threat Theatre needs donations to help the play see wider production. If you’re involved in a theater, you mightemail Critical Threat Theatre (info at criticalthreattheatre dot com) about producing the play locally in your region. Also, do yourself a favor and follow @cameronmcnary on Twitter.
Let me preface this short review of my experience with an admission. I am not a fan of MMOs. I played World of Warcraft for a while, and I’ve played other fantasy MMOs. I consistently had more frustration and boredom than fun.
A while back, I figured out my problem. Although I’ve enjoyed games such as Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age, when I play a video game, I prefer action and/or deep story. I want my movements with the controls to matter. If I’m not within the monster’s reach because I wisely moved away, I want it to miss me. The narrative should be interesting and my choices should matter. Few MMOs do these things effectively if at all.
Not so withTERA.To quote the promotional material, “TERA’s groundbreaking combat system . . . [offers] all of the depth of an MMO with the intensity . . . of an action game.”
Thanks to my smoking-hot media credentials (Critical-Hits FTW!), I got in on an inner-circle demo. In the demo, the developers taught us about the game. Then we went on a dungeon run against some evil cultists. The first highlight for me was being able to ditch the keyboard and mouse for an Xbox controller. (Others decided to stick with the traditional interface method. Luddites!)
Yeah, I know you can do that with other MMOs. I also know that it matters a lot less with them than it does with TERA.
Playing a lancer, a heavily armored shield-and-weapon guy, I was able to block and avoid blows. I could reposition easily and leap back to my feet after a knockdown. Watching my opponents for tells, I could avoid their attacks. Playing became intuitive quickly and felt a lot more like an action console game than some action console games do. The fact that some powers had cooldowns, which I have disliked in the past, never phased me. (Something has to keep you from using the good powers over and over again, and TERA does that in more than one way.) Running around and kicking ass was too much fun.
In short, I loved it. I plan to check out TERA when it finally releases. All my buddies who played it at PAX do too. We’ll see if the developers were right about the game’s rich storyline.
As an added bonus, I got to schmooze with Dave Noonan, of D&D fame, in his role as Lead Writer for En Masse Entertainment. I also got to chat with an old friend and colleague Aaron LeMay, once of Bungie (Halo 3) and now Creative Director for En Masse. It’s good to see old friends working on something new and exciting.
I worry a little, however, because TERA is going the normal route of a subscription-model MMO. Might a free-play/ala-carte-pay/premium subscription be better for a new player with a new intellectual property? I guess we’ll watch and learn.
Wizards of the Coast had a booth in the convention hall, along with plenty of tabletop action in the Hidden Level of the convention center, but much more interesting was the D&D Bus. Parked at 9th and Pike, the bus was host to demos, contests, and giveaways on the outside, along with the lovable beholder. On the inside it was an interview site and shelter for the D&D crew. They were watching Dragonslayer and the D&D Cartoonin there. Back to the 80s indeed.
Chris Youngs, my former supervisor at Wizards, wouldn’t let me play in any of the contests. He said something about me being a ringer, but I had stopped listening by then. No play for me, no listen for you. The contests were fun, though, including a D&D Spelling Bee and Name the Monster From Its Oldschool Picture. Yes, I can spell remorhaz and Mordenkainen, and I can identify the piercer and the lurker above. Heck, I can identify the original Fiend Folio’s svirfneblin and spell it, too. Does that make me a ringer? Okay, so no free loot for me, the ex-WotC guy. At least they excluded the James brothers, as well.
I also got to try out D&D Essentials characters in a custom adventure Mike Mearls ran for me and four other press folks. I was Ander the halfling thief (rogue), and my pal Robert played Korzon, human warpriest (cleric) of Thor (according to Mearls). We hammed it up, Ander searched for beer and sausages, he put the sausage back when he saw the monsters, and all had a good ol’ time killing Mearls’s Limb Thing. Ander (hail Loki!) got the killing blow (sneak attack!).
I have to say that I really like the simplicity and utility the Essentials characters have, acknowledging that some options are left off the character cards for the sake of brevity. At-will powers that modify basic attacks are good. Encounter powers that add to the effectiveness of an at-will power, especially after the at-will hits, are just awesome. This is what I wish 4e was like at the beginning, with more complexity added only later. Hindsight and all that.
Aeofel in Hell
I all but completed my two days at PAX with tickets and near-front seats to “Acquisitions Incorporated: D&D Live.” Chris Perkins, DM to the Stars, ran Binwin Bronzebottom (Scott Kurtz of PvP), Jim Darkmagic (Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade), Omin Dran (Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade), and Mister Stinky the Zombie (Wil Wheaton) through a harrowing adventure to save Aeofel (Wil Wheaton) from a hellish fate at the hands of Binwin’s archenemies, the Ambershard dwarves.
The house was packed. Chris seemed a little nervous, and who wouldn’t be in front of such a crowd, but it never showed in play. The players, in costume, took their places and really roleplayed, so much entertainment and hilarity ensued. Spectator votes determined such elements as whom a catapult attacked and what monster created the final obstacle. In the end, Acquisitions Incorporated rescued Aeofel and gained three new members, including Mister Stinky, who managed to survive despite being a minion, Rad, a California-accented human raised by dwarves, and Hellie, the hell beast Jim Darkmagic tamed by way of a failed Nature check.
The important part of these escapades is that, after heartfelt apologies from Binwin, Aeofel forgave his teammates. More important, Wil forgave Scott. The group, players and DM, put on one hell of a show.
Despite audience help, the company left scattered gems behind on the battlefield. Maybe Omin is becoming soft in his leadership position. Or has something more important than the fiscal success of Acquisitions Incorporated risen to the top of Omin’s list?
In the two days I had at the show, had surprisingly few moments to actually play games in the exhibitors’ hall. That said, I did manage some quality time with Dragon Age II, Fable III, and Fallout: New Vegas. I’m a sucker for RPGs in case you didn’t know, although I somehow missed out on playing Brink. I also dabbled in some Xbox Live Arcade games.
I have mixed feelings about the original Dragon Age. The story was phenomenal. Interactions with and among the NPCs were great. Gameplay, when left to flow and focused on one character, was too much like a traditional MMO to elicit much enthusiasm from me. Further, the mute manikin that is one’s main character seemed so yesteryear.
Dragon Age II impressed me, however. I learned the new storyline spans a longer roll of years and jumps to exciting times in the hero’s life via a framed narrative. The game also has new art direction and style. That the main character actually speaks, much like the character of Mass Effect games, is great. What excited me the most, however, was the dynamism the rogue I played displayed in combat. Some of this energy is just animation related to power usage, but the game is a lot more exciting for it. I’m left to wonder if mage is still the best class, since it was in the first game. (I also got a shiny, new inflatable sword staff, which I was happy to share.)
The Fable series has been a favorite of mine since I played Fable on the Xbox. Fable IIIseems like all the goodness of Fable II—ease of play, fun story (mostly), and NPC interactions—with some improvements. Having played Fable II, I was able to fight skillfully right out of the load screen. The world was different, though. Set fifty years after Fable II and the death of your Fable II character, Fable III is a steamy world of industrial and military revolution. What’s more, my character actually spoke to his dog, which is something no Fable player character has ever done. Although those at the booth assured me that the interaction with items and the world is much more interactive and streamlined, relying less on menus and more on an intuitive interface, I didn’t get to see this feature. I’d know what I was getting for my birthday . . .
. . . if Fallout: New Vegas didn’t release at nearly the same time as Fable III. The latest Fallout installment has the appeal of its latest predecessor. It has detailed interaction, cool world aesthetics, shooter fighting style, and the decidedly nontwitch, pause-and-aim targeting system. It’s also set in the same general region as Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout’s clear predecessor, the amazing Wasteland. I have to wonder how much homage New Vegas might pay to its ancestors. Further, in the brief time I played, I learned you can do something I often wondered about not being able to do while playing Fallout 3. You can disguise yourself as a member of a faction by stealing and wearing a faction member’s clothes. That’s great, and I wonder what other role factions might play in Fallout: New Vegas.
That’s enough about games that might take a hundred or more hours to complete. I also saw two lighter games that have me intrigued. Last year’s PAX introduced details of Ron Gilbert’s (of Monkey Island fame) Deathspank, a Diablo-like game with a much better sense of humor and better cartoon mayhem than Diablo. Despite the fact that the original Deathspank released in July, we can join the Defender of the Downtrodden in a new adventure across another cylindrical world in Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue. This time Deathspank has guns. Less action oriented but, perhaps, equally silly is Plants vs. Zombies. Although it has been out for a while, I just learned about it and its expanded Xbox Live version at the show. Plant a garden to fend off the warriors of the zombie apocalypse. This little game gives a new meaning to whirled peas.
Like all good things, PAX ended. Due to required nuptial witnessing, it ended on Saturday for me. Oh, I’m not bitter. In fact, I feel privileged that PAX is local. With all this good stuff happening before, during, and after the show, it’s sure to become one of my yearly rituals.