Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Announcing Sasquatch Game Studio

I'll keep it short...for now.

[cue villain laughter.]

Rich Baker, Steve Schubert, and I founded a game company to make high-end tabletop game products without brand teams or corporate make cool stuff with our (incredibly talented, creative, experienced) friends and colleagues in the industry.

Check us out here.

Our first product, the Primeval Thule campaign setting, is going to be a stunner. More details, art, release schedule, contents...all that stuff is coming.

This means I'm basically "descending into savagery" this summer, and I couldn't be happier!


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Failing Forward Lite

I did some story-gaming over the holiday weekend with a GM who was devoted to the concept of “failing forward”—the idea that a failed skill check or whatever isn’t just a negation of the success, but a failure that still drives the narrative forward.

And this GM was the failing-forwardest of the failing forwards. After about an hour, we were careening toward our collective destiny—individual successes and failures be damned.

At a table devoted to storytelling, where narrative integrity is the highest virtue, that isn’t necessarily a problem. At many Pathfinder/D&D tables, though, it falls short, because the game is also a capital-G Game, and because individual problem-solving (or problem-failing) is part of the challenge.

In those games, failing forward can still be useful, but only if you don’t forget the primacy of the “failing” part.

That’s what my weekend game lacked. The failures were often entertaining, and they had just as much payoff (in terms of emotion, narrative, and overall enjoyment) as the successes. I never felt the sting of failure.

A lot of well-meaning D&D/Pathfinder DMs have taken “failing forward” as a rallying cry. If that’s working for you, great! But consider this: when the “forward” overwhelms the “failing,” you may be robbing your table of drama and tension without even realizing it.

Failing Forward Lite

When I’m DMing and I see a good “failing forward” moment, I’m going to try Failing Forward Lite. Think of it as three parts failing, one part forward. The player still gets the sting of failure. The table condition is incrementally worse (and probably more tense) as a result of the failure. But the failure includes something beyond a simple “you missed/that didn’t work” negation.

Example: When the player fails an Arcana check to decipher some runes on a dungeon door, tell the player “you have no idea what those runes mean” (the failing), then add, “…but you think the restricted library stacks in the Demesne of Memory would have the answer” (the forward). The player feels the sting of failure, the situation is more tense, but you’ve added an option rather than just negating something the player wanted to do. That’s Failing Forward Lite.

Example: The player wants permission to enter the catacombs under the castle, but she fails an Intimidate check against the duke. Rather than just having the duke match intimidation with a forceful personality, have the Intimidate check work too well —the duke faints with fright.

The player feels the sting of failure (no permission to get into the catacombs). The situation is definitely more tense (approaching footsteps indicate that guards will march by soon and see the PCs surrounding the prone form of the duke). And now the whole encounter just took a turn that the players (and let’s be honest, also you) weren’t expecting.

Try that recipe: three parts failing, one part forward. See whether you get the benefits of the “forward” while keeping tension and reward intact.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Zero-Sum Action Points

I love action points. (And their Pathfinder equivalent, hero points.)

But I hate the action point rules.

To my mind, action points work best when they’re elementally simple: spend an action point to get an extra standard action. When a player spends an action point, it almost always makes the game more fun for everyone involved. The action point enables great, dramatic moments.

But all the other rules just complicate the action point’s essential elegance, and they’re begging to be forgotten in actual play.

• “+2 attack if you spend an action point while prone.”
• “+2 to Will defense if you spend an action point when adjacent to an undead creature.”

(Those are probably fictitious examples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned out to be real. I shudder at the crazy, corner-case rules in racial feats and paragon paths.)

The eight (!) different ways you can spend a hero point in Pathfinder? Same problem. That hero point can generate a luck bonus: sometimes it’s +8, sometimes +4, and sometimes +2. 

Keep it simple, DMs—regardless of what edition you’re playing. Just say no complicated action points.

Side note: Adding action-granting points to 3.x games is super-easy; my 3.5 campaign did it for years. Older editions aren’t much harder—you just have to do a little more work to define a “standard action” category.

Watch Me Contradict Myself
In my Thursday night 3.x campaign, I handed out poker chips to represent action points, and I loved the dramatic moment when a player picked up the chip, contemplated it briefly, then slid it across the table to me.

(Players of the FATE RPG get these dramatic moments all the time by using chips as props for Fate Points. It’s a good bit of physical theater.)

For my upcoming campaign, I’m going to make action points more complicated. I'm bringing back the poker chips, and I’m going to try something new: zero-sum action points. 

The idea is simple: When the player gives that poker chip to the DM for an extra action, the player is really giving the poker chip to the DM. The DM can spend that chip later. (Insert evil laughter here.)

This makes the action point system more complicated, but if the “DM spending” moment can be as elegant as player spending, then it might be even better.

What Does the Poker Chip Do?
First, let’s deal with the obvious way a DM could spend a chip: to give a monster an extra action, or more broadly to help out the monster.

It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it nicely mirrors how players are using their chips. But I don’t think it’s very satisfying.

First, 4e and Pathfinder already have ways for monsters to get action points/hero points. (It’s a lot more prevalent in 4e, where they come standard on elites and solos.) At the tables I frequent, it doesn’t feel like an awesome moment when the DM has the dragon spend an action point, though. It feels like the DM is cheating—but within the rules.

Second, when I’m a DM, I don’t need my monsters to be tougher or more effective. I’ve got monsters at literally every level of effectiveness, and I’m never going to run out of monsters. In mid-fight, I don’t need more monster actions. I don’t need some kind of pervasive stat buff either.

Instead, I want to spend my DM poker chip to increase the amount of mayhem in a fight, or to ratchet up the tension somehow. Mayhem and tension…those are the products I want to buy with my poker chips.

(Mayhem and tension are probably neutral for encounter balance, but the players won’t see it that way. I don’t want players to hoard their action points because they’re worried about me, but I do want a little frisson of danger when they slide that chip across the table.)

At this point, I have about half-dozen ideas for tension and mayhem. Some of them are what I’ll charitably call “inelegant.” I don’t know which is best…but that’s what playtesting is for. In the coming weeks, I’ll be spending my DM poker chips in the following ways:

Property destruction. You spend the chip to make the roof collapse or the room start filling with water--really, anything big that makes the encounter a “whole new ballgame.” You’d probably have to design a specific “destruction upgrade” for each encounter, which is both a strength and a weakness. Good thing I like making encounters!

Reinforcements. New bad guys—or better yet, a third faction that mixes it up with everybody—show up. Again, you’d design the “reinforcement upgrade” for each encounter.

Messing with criticals. All crit ranges increase, all crits deal even more damage, or all crits have an extra rider effect. Something like that. It’s gonna be a big swing, though—you don’t want it to go unnoticed.

Riskier debuffs. For the rest of the encounter, if you miss with an attack that would have imposed a condition if it hit, you get hit with that condition yourself. (Probably too crazy, but that’s why we test.)

• Successful hits impose a vulnerability condition to future hits of that type, probably with “save ends” or 1 rd./level timing.

Save DCs start moving around—every time you make a save, it gets harder to make the next one.

Debuffs on misses. If you miss with an attack, you grant combat advantage for a round.

Of these ideas, I think the ones that mess with criticals and saving throws hold the most promise. Those are naturally high-drama moments, and cranking up the tension even further with a poker chip might pay off in spades.

But like I said, I’m gonna test a bunch of these. It’s a meritocracy of tension and mayhem. A mayhemocracy, if you will.

Getting the Chips Back to the Players
Ideally, there’d be a full-fledged poker-chip economy, where the DM is sliding the chips back to individual players. (This is what FATE does to great effect.) But I usually want mayhem and tension to be tablewide, so it’s hard to know which player gets the chip. I’ll probably just put the spent DM chips into “limbo” until the players earn action points the normal way (depending on whether we’re playing 4e or Pathfinder). At least at first…


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

More on Subtracting

Here’s another thing I’m subtracting out as I build my next D&D campaign: PCs who aren’t sitting at my table. They no longer get campaign support. Sucks to be them.

Wait, what? Of course you aren’t supporting people you aren’t gaming with, Noonan. What’s your point?

My point is this: because I care only about the players at my table, I don’t need to assume a world with other PCs running around.

For example, you can’t play a paladin in my next campaign. Instead, you can play the paladin. Meaning:
  • There’s only one of you.
  • You’re like a slayer from the Buffyverse. That's why you have smite evil.
  • Your crusade is an individual one, because you alone were capital-C Chosen.
No mechanical difference, but that small difference in article—“the” instead of “a”—puts quite a spring in your step, doesn't it?

(In theory, I should have to worry about stuff like “What if two players want to be paladins? What if someone multiclasses into paladins later?” But I can’t make myself care about those questions because with only six chairs at my table, they’re almost certainly hypothetical. And the upside of being the paladin is too good to pass up.)
Now extend that reasoning to the other classes. I’m not going to make every class literally one of a kind, but I’m going to invest every character with that much uniqueness. Every PC stands out from the crowd. Even the unobtrusive PC is a quasi-mystical Platonic ideal of unobtrusive.

Finally, extend that reasoning to the other races, too. You’re not an elf. You’re the only elf most people will ever meet, a dangerous fey creature capable of anything. Do you get your own table in the inn? You bet! Do guards take two steps back when you pull your hood back and reveal the pointy ears? Yes, ma’am!

And when you do meet other elves, it’s because you’ve crossed over into the Seelie Realm, which is Elric’s Melnibone with better shrubbery. Those elves are the payoff for all those superstitious innkeepers and nervous guards. Turns out that was all foreshadowing, and now your elf is dealing with a whole culture even elfier than you are.

So that’s the paladin and the elf. Now comes the fun part: extending that sense of uniqueness to the rest of the classes and races. Then the best part of all: watching the players pick who they’re gonna be.

P.S. I've changed the color scheme on the blog. Your eyes will thank me.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Power of Subtractive Design

I’m part of a worldbuilding collaboration at the moment, and we’re getting significant mileage out of the power of subtraction: taking some things out of the world so that other things have more room to flourish. Seems obvious when you type the sentence, but it’s so easy to forget.

D&D example: off the top of your head, think of mid- to high-level “sinister civilization” races. Drow, mind flayers, rakshasa, githyanki are easy. Yuan-ti and evil giants come to mind right away. Efreet, demons, devils, sure.
And that’s just the start. Pull your copy of Monster Manual Whatever off the shelf, and you’ll have a half-dozen more…in every book. No matter what your favorite edition is, you have way more sinister civilzations than you can possibly use—even if some of those monsters are “offscreen” and only namechecked.
If you’re the designer of a new campaign setting, you probably have a mandate to make all those monsters fit somewhere. You have to figure out what part of the Forgotten Realms or Eberron is home to the dragonborn. You have to leave room for all those sinister civilizations, for the approximately twelveteen elven subraces…and gods forbid you don’t give the gnomes a nation of their own.

That mandate sucks. My favorite published campaign worlds have said, “You know what? There ain’t no _________s in our world.” (Dark Sun is probably the best example of this.)

If you don’t have sahuagin and kuo-toa and troglodytes and lizardmen in the world, the one or two “wet bad guys” you keep can actually have room to breathe. (Possibly through gills, in this case.)
For your home campaign, you can subtract even more. Be realistic about how many sessions you’ll have and how many creatures and places the players will meet. (And by “meet” I mean “kill, then loot.”) Reserve a place in your world only for things the players will actually experience (even if they only hear about them). Don’t have eighteen different kinds of goblinesque mooks. Have one kind of goblinesque mook, and invest them with tons of personality and verve. The other seventeen kinds don’t exist, period.

Adding things later is easy. They publish whole books full of that stuff, man, and you can make up even better stuff yourself. But subtracting is easy only at the start. Subtract! Make your campaign lean and mean.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Better Boss Battles, Part 3

Alternate Title: "A DM, an adventure designer, and a monster designer walk into a bar..."

In the first two parts of what has apparently become a trilogy (three stages about three stages?), we talked about adapting AngryDM’s three-stage boss designs for Pathfinder and D&D Next.

Whatever flavor of D&D you like, try it at your table—I think you’ll like the results. And once you fight against (or DM as) a three-stage boss, you’ll ask: why aren’t all boss monsters built this way?

After all, it’s not a 3e/Pathfinder problem…or a 4e problem…or a D&D Next problem. The problem stretches back to the point when we all started playing monsters out of rulebooks in the first place. A traditional monster doesn’t work for a climax encounter, and a climax-encounter monster doesn’t work for a traditional “1d4+1 of these in room 22.”

Whose Job Is It, Anyway?
The climax battle of a good adventure has three co-authors: 

• the DM
• the designer who built the final monster
• the designer who wrote the adventure

(Sometimes the DM is two of those dudes, or maybe even all three, but let’s assume they’re all different people.) 

Who’s best equipped to make a great climax monster, whether it’s a three-stage boss or some other style?

The obvious answer is the DM, but that’s a copout. Because the DM knows the players, knows the campaign, knows the narrative, and can improvise on the fly, of course the DM is going to do the best job designing a climax monster. But that same reasoning applies to every sort of RPG design. The DM is also the best encounter designer, NPC designer, world builder, mechanical balance designer, etc. DMs don’t necessarily have the time to design everything, and they’re being paid only in pizza slices. So they’re off the hook.

(By all means, DMs, make cool three-stage monsters! But the sole responsibility for a great climax monster shouldn’t fall in your lap.)

Since climax monster design is, well, monster design, you might think it’s the monster designer’s job. But three-stage bosses and similar designs are best when they’re idiosyncratic—when they twist, bend, and sometimes break the established rules in satisfying ways.

A skill challenge—either 4e’s formalized version or the more freeform versions in Pathfinder and presumably D&D Next—is a great foundation for part of a three-stage climax. But such a challenge is baked into the specific environment and story of the climax, so we can’t exactly expect a Monster Manual to have a great skill challenge as part of every stat block.

(I’d buy an all-three-stage Monster Manual, but for reading and inspiration, not actual use at the table.)

Another problem is that some monsters serve double duty: they’re both bosses and regular monsters. The lich? Almost always the boss monster. But what about a marilith? Maybe she’s alone in the final room of the temple, but maybe she’s outside the door, guarding it with lots of her demon buddies.

In other words, boss monsters need to not only be awesome, but specifically awesome, constructed for the situation and constructed for the climax.

That leaves you, Dr. Adventure Designer. You’re the one who knows both the narrative terrain and the actual terrain. You know that after this fight, the credits roll. It’s your responsibility to make the climax monster worthy of the climax. Use three stages! Throw in wave attacks! Steal ideas from MMORPGs (fair is fair, right?)! Do something beyond plunking down a level-appropriate mob, adding a couple interesting terrain features, and writing your “Concluding the Adventure” section.

If you’re DMing an adventure you wrote, then the onus is on you to make your bosses as cool as the three-stage bosses. (Good news, though: designing these bosses is fun.)

And if you’re DMing a published adventure with a climax that’s not as good as a three-stage boss battle, make it better! You’ve got the tools and the know-how.

Your players will love you for it. They might even spring for pizza.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Better Boss Battles, Part 2 (D&D Next)

Can you do a three-stage boss monster for D&D Next? Absolutely—and it’s warranted. If you thought that the Big Bads of 3e/Pathfinder and 4e…

• don’t get enough actions
• have the fun parts front-loaded
• are too vulnerable to conditions, and
• lack a sense of progress through the fight

…well, the D&D Next monsters have those issues when used as boss monsters, too.

The Obvious Caveats
I have only the playtest packet to go by, and by definition that means the game ain’t done yet. These monsters are also designed for general use, not as boss monsters specifically (but see the “Part 3: A DM Walks Into a Bar” blog entry tomorrow). Most of the playtest materials we’ve seen have been player-focused: classes, spells, etc.

D&D Next playtesters have been given multiple adventures to play through, so if we can divine designer intent from someplace, that’s where to look, eh? My experience thus far has been that the bosses play like regular ol’ D&D monsters, not the three-ring circus of awesome that is a AngryDM-style boss monster. They aren’t pulling their weight as adventure-climax foes.

That sounds critical, but the boss monster awesomeness isn’t necessarily the monster designer’s job, so it’s not really a critique of the monsters themselves. Again, see tomorrow’s blog for more on that. First, though, let’s three-stage up one of these 5e puppies.

One note: I’m sharing my playtest impressions here—to my mind, playtesting D&D Next’s suitability as a toolkit is of paramount importance. D&D has always been (among other things) a toolkit. I’m not revealing stat blocks or anything, though—sign up for the playtest and see for yourself.

OK, Playtest Packet, What Ya Got?
For starters, ya don't got dragons equivalent to the high-level Pathfinder one we talked about in Part 1. The D&D Next dragons are straight-up claw/claw/bite machines, with the requisite breath weapon and frightful presence. No spell-likes, let alone full-on spellcasting. Nothing like the 3e dustcloud they’d make by hovering. (Remember, they ain’t done yet, and that might be the reason.)

Let’s look at something more obviously a boss monster. How about the lich? It’s a natural boss-monster. You always find the lich in the last room of the dungeon, right? It’s not like you’ll find “Room 22: 1d4+1 liches.”

The D&D Next lich is mechanically simple…kinda. All the complexity is sitting within the spells it casts. It’s got the usual set of undead immunities and a paralyzing touch. For spells, it’s got straight-up damage (fireball, lightning bolt), some area denial (cloudkill, wall of fire), and some sneaky stuff (invisibility, mirror image)…all 1/day.

That’s it…kinda. There are also a bunch of customization options that amp up the lich’s lethality: a damaging aura, frightening gaze, draining touch, and a bunch of “cast as higher level” stuff. No word (yet) on how these change the lich’s level.

Three-Staging the Lich
The lich wants to cast a spell every round—that's the fun stuff, right?—but it has nothing beyond its undead immunities to make sure it gets those spells off. Vulnerable to conditions? At least somewhat.

But the real thing is that spell list. Those are all 1/day spells, so in round 1, the lich does its most interesting thing. In round 2, the second-most interesting thing. By round 4 or 5, the lich is scraping the bottom of the phylactery. (And none of those customization options offer more spells, just a higher caster level.)

The flip side is that there’ll be a strong sense of progress. When the 5e lich starts using clearly weaker spells, the players will feel like they’re getting somewhere. That’s good! Let’s build on that.

To make this lich into something that AngryDM would tolerate, let’s split up the spell list and differentiate the lich's behavior a bit.

Stage One: The big-boom stuff goes in the first stage. That’s when our lich is shooting lightning bolts from its bony hands, cackling maniacally, and using Noonan’s nerve-jangle (not an actual spell) to force-move players into that cloudkill. The special-effects guys work overtime in stage one.

Eventually, the players deal enough damage to force a stage change. The D&DN lich disappears (that invisibility spell!), and its disembodied voice taunts the players.

Stage Two: This stage is all about the lich being clever and sneaky. It’s got second-shelf, single-target spells in this stage, but it’s using mirror image, invisibility, and maybe even disguise self to impersonate a party member. The fundamental challenge to the players is to deal with all the obfuscation.

I’m enough of a ham to have stage two end with some play-acting about the lich’s magic failing. Maybe its wand breaks in two, or it tries to cast a spell…and it fizzles. Don’t dedicate an action to it—just describe it and do your stage-change.

Stage Three: Now our lich acts desperate. We design the whole stage to get this feeling across. This is when it uses most of its undead tricks like the paralyzing/draining touch and maybe a necro spell or two, but that’s it. This is a lich who’s out of gas, and the players get the emotional reward of feeling that  desperation before the lich finally succumbs and the “great hunt for the phylactery” begins.

To be honest, my own D&D Next proficiency hasn’t reached the point where I can comfortably eyeball how many spells you should give a three-stage lich. And the game ain’t done yet. Maybe four, of which you’ll likely use three?

Right now, D&D Next monsters are really simple. For an exercise like this, that’s good! It gives us plenty of room to get our toolboxes out and get to work.

Next Up: A DM, an adventure designer, and a monster designer walk into a bar. Among the three of them, who’s best equipped to build a three-stage monster?