Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Addendums...or "Addenda," I Suppose

Just quick hits today:

• My guest co-hosting gig on the Power Source podcast is up. Click on the link to download.
• One thing I should have mentioned in yesterday's "Getting Better At D&D" post: The "make a bunch of characters, just so you feel the decision points" exercise is worth doing even if you're the Dungeon Master. If you're the DM, try doing the classes at your table at one of those benchmark levels: 5th or 11th (or 21st if you're in the deep end of the pool). You'll learn a lot of character nuances that have been obscured from your view (and you might catch some player shenanigans, too).
• I think I mentioned this when we were recording the Power Source podcast, but it's worth noting that in a cooperative game like D&D, getting "better" at doesn't directly improve your play experience. I've seen countless tables of noob D&D players--both casually and from behind the two-way mirrors at WotC--and they're extracting just as much enjoyment out of the game as an expert player...even though those junior-high noobs are doing it wrong.

Out of Context: Humbug, shoe kid! Humbug!
Music: The xx, xx

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Getting "Better" at D&D: An Occasional Series, Part 1

Making Characters, All the Way Up

One of the things I did at Wizards back in the day was create and then maintain what we called the "Pre-Fab Four:" Mialee the wizard, Jozan the cleric, Tordek the fighter, and Lidda the rogue. Each one lived in its own Excel spreadsheet, with one tab for each level. Whenever we needed a party for a playtest (or just for benchmarking), we'd print out the relevant level. It wasn't the prettiest character sheet, and it wasn't the smartest spreadsheet (though it did do basic calculations for you). It worked, though—we used the Pre-Fab Four year after year.

For 3.0 we actually had all of the "iconics"—Krusk, Vadania, etc.—statted up 1-20. I did first drafts on about half of those and second drafts on nearly of all 'em. Whew!

And along the way we killed a lot of trees. The spreadsheets had a bug we never could squash where the "Number of Copies" field always had an arbitrarily large number…19,000 or so. You had to remember to fix that each time you printed, or the printer would merrily empty itself of paper creating a huge stack of Liddas for you.

Anyway, this was before DDI and before the character builder. So making those PCs one at a time was a handcrafted effort. My mandate was to make straightforward but not suboptimal choices. Tordek, for example, was a sword-and-board (OK, sword and axe) fighter rather than some sort of spiked-chain wunderkind. I wanted any intermediate-level D&D player to be able to sit down and play a Pre-Fab Four character right away.

Make characters from level 1 to level 20 four times in a row—gear and all—and you get good at it, eventually. (Or at least you get more efficient.) But it still took hours…maybe a day for the nonspellcasters and more than that for Mialee and Jozan. Nowadays DDI and a less gear-centric game would make it a lot faster…except that there are 30 levels now.

Handcrafting the Pre-Fab Four made me a lot more aware of what each class was capable of, which items, feats, and spells were key…all sorts of stuff. And I'm pretty sure that a similar effort in 4e would make anyone a better D&D player.

Do It Yourself

So here's one way to get better at D&D: Take your favorite character class and build it one level at a time, gear and all, until you hit 30th level. Trust me: You will become an utter brainiac about your class.

Alternatively, pick a specific level—5th and 11th are solid choices—and make characters at that level for lots of classes. Try making a 5th-level character for the class of every other player at your table. You'll be amazed at how much you learn about your buddies' PCs. You will become Mr. Teamwork at your table.

I'd suggest that rather than going for esoteric builds, you stick with "straightforward and solid choices." Remember, you're doing this to learn, not to "win" at D&D with your extreme power-munchkin-sauce.

Don't stress out too much about the choices you make. That's not the point. The point is to put yourself in assessment mode—to feel the "this power or that power?" question at each level. If you do that, you learn about both the options you chose and the options you didn't choose.

And look at it this way: Your choices will certainly be better than the DDI Character Creator's Auto-Pick function! (Seriously, they should just turn that function off. No guidance is better than horrible, misleading guidance.)

Out of Context: Don't you dare call me toffee-nosed!

Music: Black Crowes, Amorica

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some quick business stuff

I've been busy the last few weeks. Let's see...

• I'm the managing editor of the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Still getting up to speed there, but it's fascinating to take a more academic look at goings-on in the SF world. And as one of my first acts, I talked them into adding SF/Fantasy games to their repertoire. I even had a hand in setting the topic of the first few "Gamenivore" review columns. You'll see the reviewer's thoughts on Eclipse Phase over at IROSF. Hint: It's not as glowing a review as you saw here a few months back.

• I have a new job: Senior Writer at an MMO startup. Can't tell you the name of the company, but not for the usual nondisclosure reasons. Our desired company name (and various variations) is still going through the trademark process. So I work for a company with no name, basically. Love the startup vibe, though, and man are the other nine people who work here sharp.

• I was the guest co-host on the Power Source podcast over the weekend. It should "air" soon. It was fun to sit behind a microphone and just talk D&D for a while. I missed that more than I thought.

Out of Context: Where's that confounded bridge?
Music: Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms

Monday, November 23, 2009

When did we become "The Man?"

Something I noticed when I was flipping through recent D&D come our D&D characters are agents of "The Man" nowadays?

I don't have a complete collection of 4e adventures, so I can't claim to be comprehensive. But in nearly every adventure I flipped through, the PCs are either the agents of the authorities or they're acting congruent to those interests.

Where are the rebels? Where are the capers? Where are the heists?

Some of this is a natural consequence of the "Points of Light" proto-campaign. Back when we were designing it, we talked a lot about "dark points of light"--and yes, we were aware of how dumb that term sounds.

A "dark point of light" is a spot where local authority has coalesced, but it's tyrannical/pathological/evil/just-plain-mean authority. And the PCs need to go there and bust that shit up.

I don't see much evidence of PCs getting the chance to stick it to The Man in, what, a year and a half of adventures?!? So adventure writers, let's get on the case! We need to overthrow some dudes who are duly constituted authorities--but evil.

And we need some morally ambivalent stuff. Give me an Ocean's Eleven-style caper adventure where the quest isn't "Help The Man" so much as it's "Get...Paid..."

Set the wayback machine for the mid-'80s, and you'll an adventure landscape replete with plenty of "let's get rich!" adventures. Lots of moral ambivalence--why do you think there's a bank in the Keep on the Borderlands? So we can knock it over! And there's a fair amount of "stick it to the evil overlord" in there, too.

At some point, maybe we got too genteel. I don't know. But I'm tired of getting deputized by the proverbial sheriff to go and clear out a nest of bad guys. I shot the sheriff, all right? Maybe I did it just to rob the bank and burn the whole town down. Maybe the sheriff had it coming. But I'm tired of being the sheriff's monkey-boy, that's for sure.

Out of Context: Brains should be spelled with one "a." Or five.
Music: Jeff Buckley, Grace

Friday, November 20, 2009

Musings on the Nov. 17 D&D update

Last week, my former colleagues at WotC published a big patch to the D&D rules. And this was a big one--not big in the sense that any single change is overwhelming, but the accumulation of mid-range changes is...big.

Big enough that the good folks over at the Character Optimization Board have a lot of revising to do on those terrific class guides.

Big enough that, thanks to a respec from a kindly DM, my githyanki orbizard became a warlock last night. (I'm pouring out the proverbial 40-oz. for my dead bloodclaw and orb of ultimate imposition homies.)

Big enough that even if I were strictly a "civilian" D&D gamer (and not a former D&D game designer and occasional adventure author), I'd definitely pay for D&D Insider and stop buying the actual books. There are enough changes this month, spread out over enough books, that I don't think I could trust what's on the written page anymore. Each discrete change wasn't huge, but they weren't just fixing typos, either. The bulk of the Nov. 17 changes matter. They would noticeably impact play at your table.

If you've got the Character Builder and the Compendium, you're good to go. Especially if you're using something like But so much has changed in the dead-tree versions of those books. The updated, electronic version of the game is substantively different now.

I'm glad I don't have to worry about the D&D business model anymore. (And to be clear, I have zero insight into what it looks like nowadays.) It's certainly conceivable that those DDI subscriptions make up for lost physical book sales among those of us who are going the all-electronic route. Given the way game stores are disappearing from the landscape and given the way book chains are getting hammered (will there be a Borders after April?), it's clear that WotC needs new ways to get their stuff out there.

But I do know this: Opting for DDI is definitely saving me money (some of which would have wound up in WotC's pocket), and it's delivering a better experience at the table. I wonder whether the bean-counters in Renton are as happy as I am, though. 'Cause I sure would be buying actual D&D books if DDI didn't exist.

Oh, and on a side note: I'm writing a 30th-level adventure right now. God, I love the deep end of the pool.

Out of Context: Four things greater than all things are/Women and Horses and Power and War.
Music: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Getting Started in EVE Online

I have a couple buddies who are a week or two behind me in EVE Online. I figured I'd type out a couple tips here so they're in one convenient place. Most is wisdom gleaned from elsewhere, but I've thrown my own thoughts in there, too.

Almost all of this can be done on a trial account. And if an MMO hasn't hooked you by the end of the free trial, it doesn't deserve you, your time, or your money.

Take Time on Your Portrait and Name
You'll be staring at it as long you're playing EVE--and there's no way to change it. So get something you want to look at. One other thing to consider: Much of the time, you'll be looking at a small, icon-size version of your portrait. Make sure the three main elements (your head, your shoulders, and the background) aren't equally light or equally dark. Shoot for light/medium/dark, split up however you like.

Likewise, you're stuck with your name. So make sure it's cool.

(Note from the future: As I was typing this, Tycho from Penny Arcade was thinking in parallel. Check it, yo.)

Play Through the Tutorial

The "Crash Course" tutorial is pretty good. It takes a couple hours, depending on how much you explore the interface. When you're done, you should have some cash, a ship--and most importantly, you'll have a decent idea of whether EVE is for you. If you're intrigued, keep going. But if that wasn't interesting, move on to some other game.

Play Through the "Career Advancement" Missions
You'll get three dudes who each have an eight-part quest line. Play all three, all the way through. The order doesn't matter, probably--although I did the soldier one first and got a combat-worthy frigate that I used in the mining and trading mission strings. You'll get several ships and some new skill books with these missions. And more importantly, you'll get a taste of the different roles you can play in EVE.

Buy Skill Books
At this point, the gravy train of free stuff is largely over. Visit the market and buy whatever skill books you want/need. The certificates screen is a useful guide. Certificates don't do anything in and of themselves. It's a useful way to describe "skills you'll need if you want to fly that badass cruiser," though.

Learn to Learn
Your first priority should be to acquire skills that enable game activities. For example, if you want to outfit that new Tristan with a scout drone, go ahead and get the Drones skill and spend the minutes required to get level 1 in it. But early in the game, you don't need higher levels of the skills. The NPC ships you face early on...well, they aren't exactly ninjas.

Instead, train the Learning skill and the five Attribute-specific training skills (Iron Will, Eidetic Memory, and so on) up as high as you can, as soon as you can. Why? They reduce your training time for every subsequent skill you learn...including themselves!

When you visit the market, you'll also see five other Attribute-specific learning skills that are crazy expensive (from your vantage point as a noob, anyway). Those stack with the basic five learning skills, and you'll max those out when those prices aren't quite so daunting.

Don't Fly Anything You Can't Lose
Yes, get insurance, and yes, you should watch your accumulated skill points so you know when to upgrade your clone. But don't rely on clones and insurance payouts to get you back on your feet. Your hull may be insured, but you'll lose all those fittings and whatever's in your hold if somebody blows you up. And if they destroy your escape pod, your clone will wake up just fine, but you won't have any cyberware you bought. ('Cause it's a clone, see?)

My initial thought is to keep three-quarters of my wealth in my wallet and fly around with the remaining quarter. But that's just a rule of thumb to guide my newbie explorations. Once I'm established, a better metric would be something like, "Fly around in something that takes no more than x hours of foo to replace." I'm not sure what my tolerance for x is. And "foo" is an activity: mining, courier missions, Traveller-style trading, missions, "ratting" (beating up NPC pirates and taking their stuff), or whatever my chosen "pleasant and reasonably lucrative grind activity" is. Speaking of which...

Find a "Pleasant and Lucrative" Grind Activity
This task is where I am in the game right now. I'm spending an evening or two doing each of the following, keeping track of how much ISK I make. It's not the most scientific undertaking, and the "answer" doesn't have to hold for more than the medium term. It's as much an exploration of different roles as it is an exercise in finding economic efficiency.
* Mining, probably in a 0.6 or 0.5 system. I have neither the firepower nor the friends to go for the really lucrative stuff. But I'm a noob, so that's just fine.
* Missions. Telling my starmap to show me systems with available agents was a revelation. Lots to do there.
* Ratting. Gotta spend a little on salvage sensors, etc., but this might be right up my alley as a grinding activity.
* Trading. Again, I have neither the capacity nor the knowledge to make a killing on the market. But me and my freighter can probably make a "bruising."
* Contracts. The courier stuff is what I'm thinking here. You can't do this stuff on a trial account. This is a "can you read the contract and adequately assess the risk?" as much as anything else.

Out of Context: "Why do I have to be the salt shaker?"
Music: Jeff Buckley, Grace

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More on Eclipse Phase

When I'm not at my weekly D&D game, playing EVE Online on the PC, or playing Left 4 Dead on the XBox, I'm goofing around with Eclipse Phase. I'm thinking about starting a minicampaign--either with the supplied rules or after a wholesale conversion to something more like 4e. That's not a knock on the existing Eclipse Phase rules. It's just that my supply of available players tilts heavily toward expert-level 4e players (wonder why?), and they're mostly older guys who have an innate resistance to the timesink of learning a new rules set.

As I said last month, I'm intrigued by Eclipse Phase for two reasons. First, the game itself is simultaneously cyberpunk, postapocalyptic, and hard SF. But those elements don't seem stapled together. The backstory makes them cohere rather nicely. Second, the reusable body as an answer to the death question...that's fantastic.

There a few quibbles I struggle with, of course. Reasonable game designers differ on whether it's better to start a core rulebook with character generation and only a veneer of world detail, or really spread the world out in front of the reader, then get on with character generation after the game has established its context. I'm militantly in the former column, and the fact that I don't get even a whiff of the actual game until page 114 and no character creation until page 130...well, insert exasperated fist-shaking here.

Second, I have a problem taking uplifted animals seriously--and that says more about me than it does about the concept. I loved Startide Rising, to be sure, but I can't help but consider chimps and dolphins as comedy delivery devices, not menaces. Like I said, it's a problem that exists within the nest of vipers that is my head.

Out of Context: The life of this clean desk is perpetuated in righteousness.
Music: Pearl Jam, Backspacer

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

EVE Online is for Noobs (In a Good Way)

I downshifted my World of Warcraft and Aion play this fall so I could survey a bunch of different MMOs--partly out of professional curiosity and partly because I'm ever hopeful of a transcendant game experience. (Yeah, yeah, every junkie's like a setting sun; I get it.)

I played some nifty games. In general, MMOs have their collective act together. But the one I'm continuing to play this fall is EVE Online. And frankly, no one's more surprised than me.

My expectations were low. I'd heard about how hardcore it was--how unforgiving. I've long had a fascination with the EVE community; it's great to observe as a spectator. And the game itself is an outlier by almost every measure. The game design, the UI, and even its player population curve all confound the MMO norm. So EVE is an interesting case study, and it's fun to read about all the warfare, espionage, and skullduggery. But is the game any good?

My answer is an emphatic yes! (But keep in mind I've been playing only a few weeks.)

Here are two key things that surprised me about EVE.

Hardcore, My Asteroid
Everyone says this about EVE--fans and critics alike. The EVE community wears EVE's "hardcore" nature like a badge of honor. But it's not hardcore in the sense that it's hard to learn or complex to play. In particular, if you're comfortable theorycrafting as an endgame raider in WoW or being a dungeonmaster in D&D (any edition), you're going to find EVE...well, not easy, but you'll be totally comfortable with its complexity. Really, if games are your chosen hobby, there's nothing in EVE that's crazy complicated. In some respects, it's easier. The game is less timing- and twitch-oriented than WoW or Aion (to pick two examples), and I'm basically a spaz, so that's good.

The other way people describe EVE as hardcore is that there are big swaths of the galaxy that are full-on PvP zones, and there's no expectation of fair play. Go there, and you'll get squashed like a bug. But really, it's not that bad. New players have tons to do in equally big "higher-security" swaths of the galaxy. If you follow one simple rule--don't fly around in a ship you can't afford to lose--you'll be just fine.

It's Terrific for Deep-Immersion Roleplay
(This space left blank for the obligatory "Wait, what?")

In EVE, your "character" is a head-and-shoulders shot on a viewscreen, and so is everyone else. You never walk around your ship or the space stations you visit, much less the moons and planets. When you interact with others (PCs or NPCs), you see them on a viewscreen or read an email from them (or maybe you'll voice-chat if it's another PC). You don't even have a crew on your ship, NPC or otherwise. Eighty percent of the time, you're looking at your ship flying in space, and the other 20% of the time you're looking at your ship floating in a hangar (or at least it's in the background while you work the stock market and get business done).

With your character at arm's length from you, how can this be a good roleplay environment?

I think the answer lies in EVE's interface, and in particular how it meshes with its genre.

When I'm playing EVE, I'm looking at a close exterior view of my ship. I have a window that shows my sensor array and lists what ships, asteroids, etc. are nearby. I have another window for communications, and a HUD near the bottom that shows the status of ship systems like weapons, shields, and thrusters. The game will superimpose friend-or-foe data on anything I can see on my viewscreen. And I have delightful contextual menus for things like "autopilot," "approach," "dock," and what have you. I'm not hitting a thruster button and doing manual roll/pitch/yaw for my ship. The computer does all that for me.

In other words, Dave-the-player's UI for his computer is almost exactly what Dave-the-character's UI for his ship would be. Play EVE in a dark room, and you're experiencing the game world almost exactly as your character is. And that's a recipe for immersion.

Contrast that with WoW, where I see things my character doesn't, like the minimap in the corner of my vision, the health bars of my adversaries, and their names and guild affiliations floating over their heads. With EVE, it's a freakin' computer, so of course you'd expect it to supply navigational data, battle damage reports, and ship IDs on mouseover. Your expectation is different because it's a hard SF game with a hard SF mindset.

So Are You Hooked, Noonan?
Not yet, but color me intrigued. I remember telling people all the time, "The thing about WoW is that the game changes at 60." (Now it changes at 80, I know.)

EVE will undoubtedly have those horizons, too--lines that change the game once you cross them. I have no earthly idea whether I'll like the game I find beyond those horizons. I still can't fathom that one PC game (WoW) fascinated me for four years, and I certainly don't expect other games to pull that off. But I can tell you this--the noob experience for EVE is a lot friendlier than I'd heard. And you can really immerse yourself in the mindset of a capsuleer.

Out of Context: "We need to tell her she's a particle."
Music: Fitz and the Tantrums, Songs for a Break Up, Vol. 1

Monday, October 12, 2009

It Ain't Easy Being Broken

I don't play D&D for a living anymore, but I still play D&D. And my half-orc rogue was recently petrified, so it was time to make up a new character. (We still have a rogue in the party, so I didn't lobby too hard for a "rescue the statue" effort.)

We didn't have a controller of any stripe, and I wanted to roleplay a sophisticate, so wizard was perfect. The party had been dealing with the githyanki all along, so my githyanki orb-of-imposition wizard was born.

I stacked all the save penalties I could find--and there are quite a few. Right now I can impose a -10 save penalty once a day. Give me another level, and I think I'll be up to -14. That's what I call a lockdown, and it makes simple stuff like the sleep spell pack quite a controllerish wallop.

I'm not the only one who's ever discovered this--I subsequently saw the Character Optimization board thread on the Orbizard. This character lets me scratch an itch I've had ever since I worked on the wizard, long before 4th edition saw print, and I wondered whether you could stack the save penalties high enough to make it a sure thing. (Answer: Yes!) Recent additions like Adventurer's Vault and an invoker paragon path make it potent from the early teens onward.

But it's interesting to actually play with a "sure thing" like that obscene save penalty. Playing the character becomes fraught with tension. Because I know I've got such a strong combo, I have to carefully assess each combat situation and really deploy it where it counts. That's often harder than it looks. Right now I have an "I probably win" button, but knowing when to press...that pushes some other skills pretty hard. So it's not as much of a gimme as it appears.

I'm reminded of my days as the managing editor of the Magic: The Gathering magazine, during the Urza block. Until the banhammer came down, there was an extraordinarily strong deck in Type II (Standard) constructed play called "Tolarian Blue" or "Academy" or something similar, depending on whom you were asking. The engine of the deck was pretty simple--throw out a bunch of no-cost or low-cost artifacts, use the Tolarian Academy card to get one mana for each artifact in play, then use Stroke of Genius to either draw a bunch of cards yourself (if you didn't have enough mana or cards to pull off the win yet) or force your opponent to draw so many cards that he ran out. Oh, and you'd use Mind Over Matter and discard a card to untap Tolarian Academy twice in a turn.

When you look at the pieces of the combo, it's not too hard to grasp. It wasn't until you actually built the deck and tried to play it that you realized how tricky it actually was. You had to know how many of the key combo cards were in your library and what your chances were of pulling them with a given Stroke of Genius. In the hands of a Magic Pro Tour regular, not a big deal. But you could beat a lot of ordinary civilians who'd assembled that deck, because it was bah-roken, but it wasn't easy mode.

So that's the feeling I'm getting with my orbizard right now. The question of threat assessment is keeping it interesting for me.

And since I'm crossing the streams anyway, I think there might be a powerful D&D build that uses Magic's concept of graveyard recursion. There are already some ways to get those per-encounter and per-day attacks back into your proverbial hand. Are there enough to be fully recursive? Probably not...yet. But I'll bet that build emerges in another year or two, as more parts of the combo see print.

Out of Context: Brains!
Music: Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Watch this video twice

Dan Pink talks about how to motivate people. It's a 20-minute chunk of a lecture. Go watch it here. I'll wait.

(Pause for you to watch it. Really. Seriously.)

Cool stuff, huh? I'm usually not much for business-guru-of-the-week stuff, but I appreciate Pink's reverence for actual academic study, rather than just collecting a bunch of anecdotes and calling it "Succeed to Motivate, Motivate to Succeed" or something like that.

As a guy whose career has been firmly ensconced in the right brain, suffice it to say that the notion of a work setup with lots of autonomy, mastery, and purpose...yeah, I'd sign up for that.

But that's not what intrigued me the most about Pink's speech. Try this experiment: Watch the video again, but every time that Pink says the word "business," mentally bleep it out and dub in the word "games."

(Yeah, another pause. Really, dude, go watch it again.)

If you accept the conceit that games are motivation structures (they're more than that, but they certainly are that), then a lot of the lessons from all those studies Pink cites hold for game design, too.

In other words, unless your game is largely mechanical (like, say, Asteroids), you probably shouldn't be keeping score. As one of those studies said, as soon as you demand rudimentary cognition, the score is going to mess people up more than it's going to motivate them to keep playing.

And that's not such a radical notion, really. What's the best-selling computer game of all time? The Sims, right? It's a sandbox game--lots of autonomy there, reasonable amounts of purpose (even if it's self-directed), and mastery...hmm. Maybe not so much mastery there. But still--there's no score in the upper-right hand corner.

And what was the best-selling PC game of all time before that? Myst, I think. No score there either. Hell, that game (which I adored) barely has a visible UI.

The notion of designing an electronic game with lots of autonomy, mastery, and purpose--I'm not sure that's any harder than it is to design a sharply balanced, mechanically intense game. MMOs pull off the autonomy/mastery/purpose thing with greater or lesser degrees of success all the time.

And tabletop RPGs...this is where D&D players break their arms patting themselves on the back. "We've never kept score," they'll proudly say. "We're all about the autonomy, mastery, and purpose." And for at least some tables, that's largely true.

Here's what I wonder, though:

• Electronic games of all stripes are rife with achievement systems. Is this just traditional scorekeeping with a fake beard? And all the gamertags out there festooned with achievements, medals, that just a metascore? We assume that achievement structures motivate. It's true that they direct behavior, but do they truly motivate the way we think they do? I'm unconvinced. I think they might provide more direction than thrust.

• Tabletop RPGs are notoriously difficult to teach (and they aren't helped by traditional RPG intro products). I wonder whether that's because it's harder to "teach" a rules set with autonomy/mastery/purpose than it is to teach a rules set with contingent motivators.

Out of Context: "I seem to have a lot of nutty professors in me."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New D&D adventure is up!

I wrote another bit of the Scales of War adventure path: Betrayal at Monadhan. It's up on the Dungeon site right now (DDI subscription required). And it's worth noting that Daniel Marthaler really deserves a co-author credit--he came up with the Domain of Betrayal, Arantor, and the climax encounter. Thanks, Daniel!

Out of Context: "Actually, it's not just vertically."
Music: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Couldn't Stand the Weather

Saturday, September 12, 2009


"It" being "me," that is.

I enjoyed PAX immensely--it had a terrific energy to it. I played a bunch of great games, met a lot of cool people, got a little business done, and did my bit explaining what's up with Aion.

But that was last week. Apparently our booth--along with pretty much every other booth--had a microscopic visitor: swine flu! I still love PAX, but it did a decent job of decimating the industry for a week. Lots of people are just now emerging from the worst of it.

But seriously! I still love PAX.

And I love my family, who gave me a cozy quarantine zone downstairs. I mostly slept, but I finished a playthrough of Mass Effect. (It's a great, great game, and I'm on a "play the seminal games I never got around to" kick right now.)

The other thing I did during my flu-time was read Eclipse Phase, which is also terrific. It scratches a Shadowrun/Cyberpunk itch that I've neglected too long. And the transhuman conceit does a key thing I wish more games would do: make the game world match up with anticipated gameplay.

Eclipse Phase assumes that your character is going to die every so often--heck, maybe a lot. But the conceit is that your consciousness remains intact and gets downloaded into a new body. You might have some "missing time" and be unsure what happened to your last body (hi there, Captain Plot Hook!), but you're still fundamentally "you" and thus you've got some continuity with the ongoing narrative and familiarity with the other PCs. The other PCs don't have to do that "You look trustworthy, stranger! Join us!" thing.

Throwing a bone to continuity isn't possible in every genre, of course. If your game takes place in a licensed setting or one strongly based in the real world, you're kind of stuck. But any game with a strong dose of either the supernatural or the science-fictional should have an answer for character death better than "roll up a new character." That messes with narrative continuity, and it creates the immediate problem of "what does Joe do for the next few hours while we're all still playing?"

I guess my broader point is that if you're making up the fictional world anyway, you might as well make it a world where there's some sort of explanation for character continuity after death. And that's true whether the game is powered by electrons (Aion makes its PCs overtly immortal, for example) or polyhedrals (Eclipse Phase's transhuman thing or D&D's prevalent resurrection magic).

One of the intriguing things about Eclipse Phase--and this isn't for everyone--is that the whole "download your self into a new body whenever you want" thing lets players experiment and dabble in different character builds. That's further than D&D is willing to go without significant DM assistance.

I'm playing a 9th-level half-orc rogue in a game right now. I love Shivaji's personality, backstory, etc., but I'm not enjoying the rogue part so much. So I've tentatively opened negotiations with my DM: "You know, if something really dramatic happened to Shivaji, like he became a revenant or his body was permanently possessed by a githyanki, I'd be totally OK with that." Because something like that would let me keep Shivaji's look and at least a twist on his personality and mannerisms, but I could rebuild the character into something else.

The weird thing about the whole "character continuity after death" issue is that the desire for continuity can pull you in opposite directions. Is it better for continuity at your table if PCs have the same bodies and minds each session, accepting the continuity break when a PC dies? Or is it better for continuity at your table if PCs can "resleeve" with new bodies when the old one dies or is found wanting, but keep the same personality and history regardless?

Out of Context: Somebody probably said, "We should do something new this time around." They fired that guy, and made another awesome version of the awesome thing they did last time.
Music: Maria Rita, Maria Rita

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The last guy to get into DOTA... me, apparently.

DOTA was a big deal among the game designers at Wizards for a while, but I never got into it because its rise happened to coincide with the craziness of designing 4th edition D&D. But designers on the cardside were fascinated with it--and when those guys are fascinated with something, you pay attention.

Once the exhibit hall closed at PAX yesterday, my buddy Cam and I went to the freeplay areas. Eventually we decided to try Demigod, a commercial take on the genre that DOTA spawned. And man, did I get hooked. We played Demigod--badly, but still--until the wee hours of the morning.

My list of "games to try on Day 3 of PAX" now includes two games that bill themselves as spiritual successors to DOTA. I've been sampling a lot at this show, but so far, finally seeing what all the DOTA fuss was about is the highlight for me.

Out of Context: "Look! We made him look like he's holding his breath!"
Music: The Electric Light Parade song, believe it or not

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Blank of Blanking

Consider this a big footnote to all the "Appendix N" stuff I wrote about back in March.

D&D is a great game with a storied history--heck, it's a cultural touchstone even for those who can't tell you what the material component for stoneskin is. And probably the biggest linguistic signifier for that cultural touchstone is the blank of blanking.

The blank of blanking? Think of all the D&D magic items built with that construction: +2 sword of undead slaying, ring of jumping, boots of striding and springing (a double!) get the idea. There's nothing like that blank of blanking construction to put a big neon "This is D&D" arrow on whatever you're saying.

Watch any comedian for proof. When Stephen Colbert sets up a D&D joke, the delivery device is the blank of blanking. If he talks about his +3 sword of bear-killing or whatever, he's using the blank of blanking to say, "Hey, I speak the lingo, see?"

So Where Did Blank of Blanking Come From?
To figure out where D&D got the blank of blanking in the first place, let's turn again to Appendix N of the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide: Gary Gygax's reading list of inspirations for D&D. Look at the usual suspects--Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, Vance, Leiber--and you come up dry. Not much blank of blanking in there at all.

Even Jack Vance, who certainly had a knack for naming magic items and magic spells, doesn't employ that particular construction very much. The "Blankerson's blanking blankament" construction (like Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion) is totally Vance, though.

To find the first blank of blanking, you need to search deeper into Appendix N. Specifically, to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where a dagger of burning figures prominently. I can't say for certain, but I can't find an earlier prominent blank of blanking. And for further evidence, the dagger of burning was always italicized--and you can't say that about Sting or Stormbringer.

As a side note, Three Hearts and Three Lions is also the likely source for D&D trolls. The notion of a troll that regenerated everything but fire damage...I can't find a folkoric origin for it. I think Gygax grabbed that from Anderson, too.

If you're a game designer in the fantasy genre, you're probably going to be inventing blank of blanking items for your whole career. And you've got Poul Anderson to thank for that.

Out of Context: "So what's in an Asmodian, anyway?" "Bitters, I'd imagine."
Music: None. Enjoying a quiet office before walking over to PAX.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

PAX and Aion stuff

Some PAX news of note. Well, of note to me, anyway:

• I'll be speaking about "Aion and the Evolution of the MMO Genre" at PAX at 1:30 Friday in Wolfman Theater. (Awrrrrooooooo!) Come by to listen, ask questions, or just collect giveaways.

• Also at PAX, we'll be giving away some copies of the Aion comic book, which I helped write. (And seeing how DC goes about its business? Fascinating.) has the details here.

• You'll find me in the Aion booth Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, if the current schedule holds.

I have my share of unfettered time at PAX this year, so I'm seeking advice. If you know of a game (any platform, any genre--I'm an omnivore) that's particularly cool, post a comment below and I'll check it out. Don't assume I've played a game already--there are certainly gaps in my gamer "life list."

Out of Context: Three hours of sleep is OK, if you get the one rare hour and the two uncommon hours.
Music: Sonia Dada, Barefoot Soul

Roles: Where Do We Go From Here?

First, for the aid of those who don't like reading from the bottom, here are the previous posts in this little miniseries:

Part 1: The roles in D&D (defender, leader, striker, controller) and WoW (tank, healer, DPS, and a side order of crowd control) aren't inherent in player psychology.
Part 2: You can't find proto-roles in the fantasy literature that inspired D&D (and thus WoW) or in other relevant cultural touchstones like comic books or Star Wars.
Part 3: Tanks emerged in D&D because magic users could not survive low level gameplay, and in a cooperative game like D&D, everyone contributes to keeping that guy at your table happy.
Part 4: Healers emerged because magical healing was so important to keeping a D&D party active and engaged in the ongoing narrative, but that magical healing was available from only a handful of the original character classes (the cleric, mostly).

Second, some disclaimers:
• I wouldn't dream of arguing against the notion of roles in any game that involves small-group cooperative efforts. When I say, "there's nothing inevitable about the roles we got," that's very different than the (probably bogus) assertion that "there's nothing inevitable about roles."
• Other games are going to have other roles. A lot of the skillcentric tabletop RPGs of the 1990s had specific roles for the skills (flying a starship, computer hacking, etc.) that were crucial to the setting. The tabletop wargames I'm fond of certainly have broad "roles" you could assign to each of those cardboard chits. I'm mostly interested in roles in D&D and WoW because a) I've played them a lot; and b) they cast an awfully long shadow in their respective game genres.

OK, So Let's Talk Alternatives
If the roles we wound up with trace their origin to specific design decisions Gary Gygax made in the 1970s, then...can we do other things? (Assume a fantasy context here for the tabletop RPG or MMO in your head.)
Sure you can--but realize that you're heading to the deep end of the design pool. That basic tank-healer-DPS trilogy controls your overall pacing, it largely determines what the monsters are doing at a given point in goes on and on. Those roles touch almost all the other mechanical elements of the game. The flavor of your classes (or however you define a discrete batch of character abilities) is rooted in those roles.
But you know what? If Gygax did it, you can too. My buddy Toby and I came up with the skeleton of a pretty good alternative over a lunch at a brewery a few weeks ago. (Someone might pay me for it, or I'd just lay it out here and now.) Look at how humble the roots are for tank-healer-DPS.

But Should You Come Up With Alternative Roles?
That, I think, is the real question. The role setup we've got is a double-edged sword--and I mean that in the truest sense of the word.
Say you're designing a new MMO intended for a niche within the existing MMO audience. Should you build your game with tanks, healers, and DPS?
Yes. You want people to grok your game quickly, and if new players can slide into roles they're already experienced with, they'll thrash around less during those critical first few hours. And those roles are a ready-made tool for assembling small groups of strangers. Converting thousands of strangers into a cohesive community is really what the first weeks and months of an MMO is all about. It's a readymade social convention that most people already know--even if they don't know anything else about your crazy new MMO.
No. The roles we've got are looking a little shopworn, and there's not infinite design space inside the tank-healer-DPS triangle. Especially outside the swords-and-sorcery genre, the roles don't speak to the source material.

Future Roles
A lot of MMOs (and tabletop RPGs for that matter) are going to launch in the next couple of years, many of them outside the fantasy genre. Here's what I hope: Those games that have crazy-mad innovations that are pervasive throughout the game--you guys stick to the roles we've got, just to provide a solid vantage point for us to see all those crazy-mad innovations you made.

The rest of 'em: Come up with new roles! Don't make me be a superhero healer or a "tank" for the rest of my infantry squad. (I'm willing to be a literal tank, however.) Make me something that's organic to the game I'm actually playing, not just something I've been for decades. Every time you force me into the same role structure without a damn good reason, I'm gonna shed a tear like the Indian who finds trash on the roadside.

And when you're playing a new game: Don't let us designers off the hook on the whole "role" thing! Demand roles that make sense mechanically and stay true to the source material.

Out of Context: Shugo Nom Nom Specialist--too silly?
Music: Fugazi, 13 Songs

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A couple (OK, three) Aion things

Like I said a couple days ago, I've been working on narrative/story stuff for the Aion MMO, which comes out Sept. 22. Since that's pretty close, the PR machine is cranking up. Specifically:

• You can download the Aion open beta client (directions here). The open beta itself starts on Sept. 6. So that means you can download it, but you can't actually do anything with it until then.
• The Escapist (and Warcry, which is related somehow) have a nice interview with Aion's creative writers, focusing mostly on the cross-language aspects of what we do, here. (I'll note for the record, though, that Robin's a guy.)
• I'll be at PAX. I'm part of a panel on "Evolution of the MMO Genre" or something like that on Friday afternoon. I'll probably pull a shift or two in the Aion booth--I want to see total strangers play this game for the first time. I've got a few top-secret meetings involving bidness. And oh yeah--I'm gonna play a ton of games!

Out of Context: There's an aquarium filter and a lab coat here. I don't need those within reach at all times.
Music: Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting Back to the 'Roles' Thing

OK, let's recap:

• There's nothing inevitable about Tank/Healer/DPS or Defender/Leader/Striker/Controller.

• You can't find good examples of those roles in the fantasy literature that inspired D&D (and thus MMOs). You can't find it in comic books or Star Wars, either.

• Tanks emerged because early D&D created a popular class (the magic user) that could not survive under ordinary circumstances.

Which brings us to...

Whither Healers?

I'll be brief here, because the healer role grows from the same root as the tank role, only more directly: Gary Gygax's simulationist streak.

The simulationist in Gary followed a very reasonable line of thinking: If you get stabbed nearly to death, it should take you days or weeks to recover.

What could be more reasonable than that? It makes perfect sense. But as anyone who has run a long-term campaign knows, long recuperation times can be hell on the ongoing narrative. It's no fun to clear out half a dungeon, then come back after a few weeks to find that the dungeon has realistically been reinforced.

It's worse if some players need to recuperate, but others don't; that's a recipe for splitting the party. And those long recuperation times wreak havoc with any sort of time deadline before the Great Evil Event happens. As a DM, you want that tool in your toolbox.

And it's just as bad on the NPC side. It's not exactly good drama for the PCs to nearly beat the Big Bad Evil Guy, then retreat, then come back a few days later and stab him as BBEG lies there in a hospital bed.

Gygax-the-simulationist wasn't going to allow unrealistic natural recuperation. But if magic is involved, then verisimilitude isn't threatened and all is well, right?

Thus, the cleric: A class that's mandatory not so much for in-battle healing as for its plot-saving fast recuperation. Even a single cure light wounds each day means vastly less time in the village and away from the action.

That's why for 35 years, having a cleric was pretty much mandatory (and even in 4th edition, having a leader makes life a lot easier). Without that healing (or a small fortune in consumables), you ran out of hit points, and then you ran out of fun. You had no other way of getting those hit points back quickly--in combat or between battles.

Gygax's desire for realistic natural healing yields a class (the cleric) that becomes mandatory because it keeps the plot from grinding to a halt for hospital time. MMOs pick up the healer role when they pick up D&D's role differentiation. And bingo! We have another role that seems like it's always been around, but really it's just rooted in a simple but profound design choice made back in the '70s. Had Gygax said, "Screw it--you get your hit points back after a turn (10 minutes) resting," you wouldn't have your leader role today.

Next: Alternatives.

Out of Context: It is indeed considered disrespectful to climb me.

Music: Ba Cissoko, Electric Griot Land

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 this mic still on?

Shortly after that last post, I got very busy. I'm a content writer for the Aion MMORPG, which comes out in about a month.

Because Aion is a big-deal release (and it's been out in Korea for months), there's all sorts of info available about it. You know how to Google, I figure. But since this is my blog, I'll just link to some of the PR-type stuff I had a direct hand in:

Aion Podcast #2: Classes and Customization (You'll see me briefly at the 1:30 mark).
• "5 Things" article at

I'm not done with the game yet, but the end is in sight.

(And yes, I still play D&D, and I'm still writing for the tabletop, too.)

My next post will be a continuation of the "where do the roles come from" thread I started back in March. (Suffice it to say that the nature of PC roles in both tabletop games and MMOs is a trenchant concern for me.)

But what's a few months' gap among friends, eh?

Out of Context: "This is Shugo Tap."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

So where did these roles come from, anyway: Part 3

OK, so if you've been following along (or reading from the bottom, I suppose), here's where we are. I'm trying to figure out how we wound up with the class roles we wound up with in D&D and World of Warcraft. In other words, how come we wound up with defender/leader/striker/controller (D&D) or tank/healer/DPS (WoW) rather than some other scheme.

Do other schemes exist? Sure. The action-movie scheme is smart guy/big guy/face guy/wild card. (The A-Team! Exactly!) We could have wound up with something like that. There's nothing inevitable about tank/healer/DPS from player psychology or from the fantasy source material.

Here's my conclusion: We got the roles we got because Gary Gygax gave D&D magic-users d4s for Hit Dice.

In other words, the class role scheme emerged from the mechanics of D&D itself, not from the inclinations of the players or the source material. And the scheme was omnipresent when D&D-lovin' designers were working on the first MMORPGs, so they followed suit.

So You Wanna Be a Magic User
Let's look at original D&D and 1st edition D&D. This will be old hat for the D&D grognard, but if you weren't playing D&D in the late '70s and early '80s, you'll be amazed at how cruelly fragile the D&D wizard was.

The magic user class--what we'd call wizards nowadays--had four-sided dice for Hit Dice. Period. That means many of them should be running around at 1st level with 2 or 3 hit points. And this was back in the day when most players rolled dice (often 3d6 or 4d6-drop-the-lowest) for their ability scores. You had to have a really good Constitution to eke out another hit point or two; it wasn't like 3rd edition where a 12 Con is worth another hit point and a 14 Con is worth +2 hp.

Contrast those hit points--somewhere in the 2 hp to maaaaybe 5 hp range--with the damage from a single monster attack: 1d6 damage was typical, with some attacks greater or lower. Even the weakest pit trap dealt 1d6 damage. Get hit once, you might be dead. Get hit twice, you're almost certainly dead.

It gets worse. There was no negative hit points or unconscious state. Zero hit points means you're full-on dead. Monty-Python-parrot dead. Resurrection magic was a high-level affair, prone to failure, and you came back weaker each time.

But it's worse than that. No armor for you, either, Mr. Magic User. You had an Armor Class of 10 (the worst possible), and at 1st level you were unlikely to improve it with magic or a high Dexterity (because remember, you rolled those ability scores, and nothing short of a 16 Dex could get you an Armor Class improvement).

You know what? It gets still worse. Your saving throws--rolls to avoid various environmental and magical effects--weren't very good. You had few weapons to attack with, and your magic was the fantasy equivalent of a single hand grenade...if you were lucky and got a top-drawer offensive spell like sleep.

So go ahead, send that guy with 3 hp and AC 10 into the Caves of Chaos. He can't survive. Sooner or later, there's going to be an arrow with his name on it. It's the tyranny of math.

If you played a 1st-level magic user in the early 1980s, you could not survive enough encounters to reach 2nd level. The odds against are astronomical. If you did survive, here's why:

• Your table adopted house rules to be less cruel to magic-users specifically or less lethal in general. (Like positing a near-death state at 0 hp, giving magic-users more or better spell choices at the outset, and so on.)
• You were cheating.
• Your DM was cheating on your behalf. If he did a good job, you never noticed.

Now, the word "cheating," especially in the latter case, is more pejorative than I intend it to be. D&D is a cooperative game, after all, and whatever "cheating" occurs is often a victimless crime. Frankly, a DM fudging dice rolls to keep a 1st-level magic-user alive is an act of friendship.

The fragility of those magic-users, viewed through the lens of future D&D editions and computer games, seems to be an utterly baffling, counterproductive, and just plain bad design decision. Why on earth would Gygax set up an entire class to fail? I mean, anyone looking at 4 hp, AC 10 knows that it doesn't add up, right?

But Gygax was on the frontier of a whole new type of game, and so he was operating with a different mindset than most game designers. I believe that when he was building the magic-user, he was in simulation mode.

• Magic users had 1d4 hit points because they _should_ be scrawnier than thieves and clerics, and even scrawnier than a hobgoblin or an orc.
• Magic users had AC 10 because that's what ordinary peasants in tunics had, and there's no simulation reason for the game to treat magic users any better.
• You got one spell per day because Gygax figured that if Turjan (from the Dying Earth) could keep four spells in his head at once, then a beginner like you gets one spell in your head at a time.

Viewed through the simulation lens, all reasonable choices. It's only when you take those 3 hp into a dungeon that it falls apart.

Sherman, Set the Wayback Machine for 1982
Now imagine yourself in a basement starting your first AD&D campaign back in the early 1980s. Van Halen's Fair Warning is on the turntable and you've got your parachute pants on. Everyone is playing D&D by the book, and because 1st edition AD&D did a good job of obscuring the system numbers, nobody realizes that the magic user is doomed. The inevitable goblin arrow kills the magic user, and a pall falls over the table.

At this point, a couple of things probably happen. First, the guy playing the magic user probably rolls up another magic user or maybe an illusionist (same thing, pretty much). But the DM has better access to the game's underlying numbers, and it's probably dawning on him that the next magic user isn't going to be any more viable than the last one.

If the DM is really with it, he comes up with a house rule on the spot. But more likely, he starts cheating behind the screen to keep the new magic user from dying in the very next encounter. (Nothing wrong with that--if you're hanging out with your friends in the basement, you might as well have fun, right?) But the players don't know that the fix is in. Even the DM might not realize how far he's going to go to keep that magic user alive.

Independent of the DM, the players (probably subconsciously) change their tactics to keep the magic user alive. They're doing so not because doing so makes tactical sense. They're doing it just to keep their buddy Bob from getting bummed out because his D&D character died.

The other characters start standing in front of the magic user...and thus the traditional front-rank/back-rank tactic is born. More interestingly, the other characters start doing everything they can (attacks, verbal insults, silly/weird antics) to keep the monsters from focusing their attention on the magic user...and thus aggro management is born. If magic users were as durable as, say, the D&D thieves, I don't think either behavior would have become so pronounced.

So I think that's where our tanks came from. I need to make lunch for my kids, so expect part 3.1 soon, in which I'll explain that the healers came out of the same place--the early D&D game mechanics and Gary Gygax's urge to simulate.

Out of Context: "There's still more beautifulness!"
Music: Brad, Shame

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Mother of All Funk Chords

Part 3 of the "Roles" thing will be up tonight. Truly, I am beset with good writing opportunities. 

In the meantime, here's something mind-blowing I spotted on Jonathan Coulton's site. An Israeli guy has taken a bunch of disparate YouTube clips (mostly music instruction ones) and chopped and edited them so that all the YouTube musicians are playing the same song--a song completely unlike the one in each individual clip.

The amount of work that goes into this staggers me. But oh! The payoff!

Check it out here.

Out of Context: "Being a thug means never having to say you're sorry."
Music: Radiohead, The Bends

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

So where did these roles come from, anyway: Part 2

Yesterday I made the contention that the character class roles...

Tank/DPS/Healer for MMO character classes; and
Defender/Striker/Controller/Leader for 4th edition D&D (and less overtly in previous editions)...

...came from somewhere, but they didn't inevitably emerge from player psychology. Players are all too happy to hop roles whenever they get the chance.

Stop! Sidebar time! It occurred to me that I should have explained something better yesterday. What I'm trying to get at the root of is why we wound up with the specific roles we wound up with. The fact that we wound up with roles at all...well, I regard that as inevitable, but it's interesting to ruminate on other role schemes we could have wound up with.

With that out of the way, let's get to it.

Another logical place to search for the root of the class roles is in the source material that inspired D&D and eventually Ultima Online, Everquest, World of Warcraft, and so on. Now, we aren't going to see lit characters called tanks, strikers, or whatever in the text. But we're looking for behaviors and attributes that match the character roles in D&D and MMOs. As we go on a role-seeking safari, here's what we're looking for:

• A really durable guy who occupies the attention of most of the opposition, yet provides only moderate "output" back at them.
• Conversely, someone who's more fragile but delivers most of the force applied against the opposition.
• Someone who heals other people. If that's insufficiently abstract, you can say "someone who rejuvenates others mid-battle," but really, if it's not actual healing, you're stretching.

For extra credit, you can look for examples of "crowd control," rendering the opposition temporarily unable to project its force (to borrow some good old maneuver warfare jargon). After all, that's (theoretically) an important distinction between strikers and controllers in 4th edition.

To start, let's go to one of my favorite places...

Hey, My Favorite Appendix! Appendix N!

Back when I was with Wizards, I wrote a bit about Appendix N of the 1st edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide. You can find it here. Reread your beloved copy, or take it from me: You'll mostly search in vain for any sort of team-based exploits in those books. And you aren't going to see the roles except in contrast with each other. Elric and Conan just wade through entire hordes of enemy soldiers, but that doesn't make them tanks. Fafhrd is no less a striker (and no more a defender) than the Gray Mouser is. You'll see almost no battlefield healing--period--and precious little crowd control in the many fantastic battles in all those great Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Moorcock books. 

Nor are you going to find those class roles in the literary influence that Gary Gygax always downplayed: Tolkien. As I've said before, Tolkien's greatest gift to tabletop and online RPGs wasn't dwarves, elves, and orcs. It was team-based adventures. But flip through Lord of the Rings. Gimli isn't tanking so that Legolas can do unfettered DPS. The more capable members of the Fellowship are trying to occupy the bad guys and keep the hobbits safe, sure, but their output is top-notch. Gandalf is no glass cannon, and he's not running around with d4 Hit Dice per level. When he mixes it up in melee, he's hardly fragile.

This shouldn't be surprising. Tolkien wasn't worried that every member of the Fellowship contributed equally yet uniquely to a battle. He wasn't sweating the intraparty balance issues; he had a novel to write!

You can make up D&D or WoW characters that look and behave like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. But their in-game behavior is going to map to their class roles and they'll feel constrained compared to their in-book counterparts. (And the game versions of those three guys are going to need a healer--the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith aren't going to cut it.)

I really thought I'd find proto-tanks and proto-DPS lurking in the time-shrouded mists of 20th-century fantasy literature. But they're maddeningly elusive. You can find durable guys who like to stand in front of the bad guys and take punishment, sure, but they're usually swinging the biggest swords, too. Battlefield healing is almost nonexistent. And that's if you can find team-based battles at all; they're surprisingly scarce. 

Let's Look Elsewhere

Some exploratory mining in other areas is probably warranted at this point.

• Superhero comics: The comic books of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s are a huge influence on D&D and gaming in general, mostly because gamers and game designers love 'em. And unlike most fantasy lit...hey! We've got teams! Lots of 'em!

Scratch the surface, though, and you don't get much evidence of tanks, DPS, and healers. All the pieces are right there for everyone to see (although healing is still hugely underrepresented), but the pieces aren't usually assembled into anything like gaming's class roles. 

We've got lots of durable, armored, or otherwise invulnerable heroes, for example. They do an admirable job of attracting the attention of dozens of HYDRA mooks or whatever. Tanks, right? Nope--their output is usually top-drawer as well. It's just as accurate to call 'em freakishly durable DPS. 

Try to apply the class role labels to superheroes, and you'll soon find yourself scratching your head. Some heroes are easy, but is Iron Man a tank or DPS? That's exactly the sort of question that'll launch a 20-page ENWorld thread. Take your pick among any of the invulnerable "tanks" in the Avengers: Hulk, Thor, Wonder Man. Same story--they're sitting at the top of the imaginary WWS meters. And where are all the healers?

(On the plus side, I'm giving myself ten points for working Secret Wars into this.)

It's worth noting that while I delved into my comic stacks to check this out, I can't claim to be comprehensive. But seriously, I found almost no consistent class-role behavior. Try it yourself! Take a two-year run of your favorite team comic and look at the big donnybrooks. Let me know whether you see a tank/DPS/healer strategy. Here's what I think you'll see instead. In a team-vs.-one fight, you'll see each good guy put in danger consecutively. A team-vs.-team fight will almost always evolve into a series of one-on-one or two-on-one matchups selected for dramatic reasons, not tactical ones. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

The City of Heroes MMORPG, where the players are superheroes, has class roles called archetypes, of course: Tanker, Blaster, Controller, Scrapper, Defender. (Sound familiar?) But that's a comic book game, not a comic book. More on how CoH fits into things tomorrow.

Star Wars: Another big influence on pretty much anything gamers or game designers did in the 1980s. Watch the movies, and you'll see the Jedi engaged in tanking and DPS duties (and a fair amount of crowd control) interchangeably. A Jedi will stand in harm's way and occupy dozens of those roger-roger guys. But that Jedi is also the output. It's hard to extract any sort of class-role prehistory out of Star Wars (and in any case, D&D is older than Star Wars). 

Out of Context: Tron came out when I was twelve. So Chuck is 39? (Clearly his writer is.)
Music: Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Raising Sand

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So where did these roles come from, anyway: An Intro

I've been thinking a lot about how two of my favorite games (D&D and WoW) and, by extension, two of my favorite pastimes (tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs) wound up with character roles: abstract "templates" that describe a character's essential function in the action part of the game (fighting, usually). WoW (like most MMOs) has the basic triangle of tank, DPS, and healer. D&D has always had similar roles, and in 4th edition we defined them as defender, striker, controller, and leader.

(If you aren't familiar with both genres, suffice it to say that tank = defender, healer = leader, and strikers and controllers are two flavors of DPS.)

But the weird thing? There's nothing inherent to either game in the abstract that leads you inexorably to the specific roles we wound up with. So how did we get here? 

I'm going to take a shot at answering that question in the next few posts. So call this a little blog series: "So where did these roles come from, anyway?"

But I'm going to start in a circuitous way. I think you can learn something about the emergence of those essential roles by looking not only at what a player picks as the role for the character he's actually playing, but also by looking at what a player picks for his next character--or (for MMOs) the character he's playing "on the side" in his spare time.

So let's talk about alts: alternate characters.

First: Warcraft Alts

Some of my best friends are WoW altaholics (people with multiple active characters). Once they get a character to the level cap, they start one or two others, and pretty soon they have a stable of decently-geared, max-level characters. I've always been sort of envious. Maybe it's because my main character is a level 80 feral druid (one of the game's better hybrids, and just plain fun to play), but I've never been much of an alt guy. I always have plenty of things on my main character's to-do list.

I have alts, of course.

• There's the undead rogue who was my first level-capped character. I stopped playing him only because I wanted to challenge myself with a PvP server (and thus my druid was born). I pretty much never play him anymore; he's stalled at level 61.
• I have a level 65 mage that I soloed up mostly to learn the Inscription profession and because I was taking a sabbatical from guild leadership and wanted to make myself scarce temporarily. He stopped at level 65 (the minimum to max out Inscription) and appears in Azeroth only to grab herbs out of the mailbox, turn them into ink, and (hopefully) make Noble Darkmoon cards.
• I've got a few low-level "experiments," pretty much one of every class. They're all between level 20 and 30.
• I recently started a Draenei paladin on a different server, mostly so I could enjoy the leveling-up process with a different set of quests than I'm used to. He's level 38 now, and I play him more than anyone else. 
• And like pretty much everyone, I've got a few characters that exist solely to run between the mailbox and the auction house. 

That sounds like a lot. But when I compare my arsenal of alts to the folks in my guild (which for obvious reasons tends to match my overall play style and available time to play), I'm just a piker. At least half of my guildies have at least two level 80 characters. For example, Broteas (resto shaman) has a mage alt. Shieral (bounces between boomkin and resto druid) has an enhancement shaman and a warrior that used to be our main tank. Divona (shadow priest) has a DPS death knight, a hunter, a holy paladin...and those are just her Horde characters. 

And here's the interesting thing: Almost none of them have two max-level characters in the same role (except for a few delightful but clinically insane friends who have five or six level 80 characters). On one level, that isn't surprising: people are looking for a change of pace when they select their alts. Vive la difference, right?

But on another level, it's interesting that those altaholics are throwing away all those man-hours spent learning the ins and outs of a specific role. As a guy who plays a hybrid (in my case, bouncing between DPS and tanking), I feel like I'm doing new content when I'm tanking for the first time--even if it's a dungeon I've run several times as DPS. There's no question that someone who picks a different role for their alt is volunteering to learn the game all over again. That brings with it some inefficiency (but to be clear, some fun, too).

And there's supposed to be differences in player psychology that would make you gravitate to a specific role. More on that in a second.   

Second: D&D "Alts"

When you look at alternate characters for D&D players, it's important to realize an essential difference between the tabletop and the online experience: The moment of character creation is far more constrained at the tabletop. Of course you can sit there with a sharp pencil and a stack of blank character sheets and make up as many characters as you want (and unlike WoW, you can make 'em whatever level you want!). But to actually play the new character, you've got to "retire" (often through death) your existing character, or you've got to start a whole new campaign. You can't level up your ranger at 2 a.m. when you're alone in your dorm room--not really, anyway. The tabletop game exists as a consensual experience with your friends.

So look at the two times you get to make up a new D&D character: character "retirement" (oh heck, let's just call it "death") and campaign starts. 

When your character dies, there's a strong incentive to roll up a new character in the same role as the old one. But where does that incentive come from? The other dudes at your table. It's an externality. Given your druthers, you might or might not choose the same role. But at the moment of character generation, you've got a table of buddies who are suddenly short a defender (or whatever). If you roll a leader instead, you hurt not only your new character's viability, but that of the whole table. The tendency toward "role persistence" is a function of the group's needs at the moment, not necessarily the individual's natural inclination.

In my long-running Thursday night game (spanning eight years and multiple campaigns, with long breaks when I was a new dad), the best example of this "role persistence" was my buddy Cameron, who was famous for a long line of "brave but lightly armored" characters. He played a lot of rogues and rangers, and, well, he died a lot. Cam plays aggressively and is a natural "instigator" in a good way; his characters actively seek out stuff to do, rather than waiting for NPCs to do stuff to him. Every DM wants a guy like that at the table. But the consequence is that Cameron's characters tended to be shishkabobbed, drowned, and/or stung to death by unusually venomous bees. 

When Cam showed up with his next brave-but-lightly-armored character, it was a natural thing to think that he liked that striker role. But really, Cam was looking around the table, saying: "Leader? Check. Defender? Check..." and so on. Put Cam in the other character-creation circumstance--the start of a new campaign--and bingo! Role persistence evaporates. When the whole party died in late 2007 (due in no small part to Cameron's rogue pulling a lever that should have been left alone), everyone made up new characters and we fast-forwarded a thousand years. Unfettered by the needs of the table, Cam made a dwarf fighter that was the very essence of a defender.

I spent ten years at Wizards of the Coast, so I always had plenty of campaign-start opportunities, and I was lucky enough to play in multiple campaigns simultaneously. As I think back, almost everyone in those games--professional game designer or not--bounced around from role to role when a new campaign started and their role choice was unfettered. Rich plays a paladin in one campaign, then a sorcerer with delusions of godhood in the next. Toby replaces his warforged fighter (rest in peace, Hammer) with a wizard. And come to think of it, my barbarian gets replaced with a wizard, and in the campaign after that I'm a melee cleric, and in the 50 Fathoms campaign after that I'm functionally a defender. (Miss ya, Roo!)

Let's Talk Psychographics
Based on my personal experience (the best data I have), there isn't much role persistence among either WoW or D&D players, once you subtract out the "we need a _______" factor that happens a lot at D&D tables and sometimes in WoW guilds. 

Yeah, my evidence is anectodal, but it's the best I have. I suspect that maybe WotC could tease better data out of the RPGA database (although organized, RPGA-style gaming is still something of a different beast than traditional "basement" gaming). And there's no question that Blizzard could extract more definitive data about how likely it is that a player prefers a specific role.

But here's the thing: Wizards R&D certainly believes that there are differences in player psychology that manifest themselves in role choice. In other words, some players are naturally drawn to play a leader, others a defender, and so on. I'm pretty sure that the Blizzard devs believe the same thing. And certainly some players are convinced that "you know, healing is really what I'm good at."

But given the proclivity of players in both games to happily change roles, I don't think the psych differences are that meaningful. And those psych differences are tenuous enough that I don't think you can say that roles emerged out of the psych differences in tabletop or online RPG players.

So the specific roles we wound up with--where did they emerge from? Maaaaybe from the source material: the broader fantasy genre. More on that tomorrow; I've got some offline writing to tackle first.

Out of Context: If it snows a lot, can we go saucing, Daddy?
Music: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother's Milk