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