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...

...is 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!)...you 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.) Wired.com 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 time...it 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