March 2009

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4 - PART 5 - PART 6

"There is really a very fine line between killing a sacred cow and shooting a beloved dog." - Kamikaze Midget, ENWorld

March 2nd, 2009



A Collection of Links by Justin Alexander

Over the course of several conversations spread across the past few weeks, I've been reminded of something that is rather easy to forget: Not everyone knows what I know. This has nothing to do with me being smarter than anybody else. It's just the result of a slow accumulation of random information and experience over the course of 20+ years of gaming. (Somehow I only just now realized that this means that there is significantly more time between when I started gaming and now, than there is between when I started gaming and the publication of OD&D in 1974. Crap, I'm old.)

Towards that end, I've decided to start accumulating a variety of gaming lore. Some of this stuff consists of essays I've written for the Alexandrian. A lot of it will be links to other people talking about stuff that (a) I find fascinating and (b) take for granted that everybody else knows about.

These links will be updated periodically, with the current list always available here.



A Nomenclature of D&D Editions: A complete summary of all the various editions of D&D from 1974 until the present day.

The First Dungeon Adventure: Over Christmas Break in 1970, Dave Arneson's gaming group met in a basement in Minneapolis, MN. Instead of their regular Napoleonics wargame, Arneson set up the dungeons of Castle Blackmoor on a ping-pong table. That was the first D&D-style adventure. And this is a recounting of it, written by one of the guys who was there to play it. (Other tales from Arneson's Blackmoor campaign can be found here and here.)

Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign started using the Chainmail miniature wargame rules, created by Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax, for resolving combat. Arneson and Gygax had previously collaborated on Don't Give Up the Ship! (a set of rules for Napoleonic-era naval warfare). In 1971, Arneson played the game with Gygax at GenCon. Gygax promptly started up the Greyhawk campaign in Lake Geneva, WI.

Greyhawk Lore Project: Allan Grohe (the Greyhawk Grognard) has taken it upon himself to collect every reminiscent scrap of detail regarding the original Greyhawk Campaign.



Dissociated Mechanics: Mechanics can be broadly broken down into two types -- associated mechanics and dissociated mechanics. Dissociated mechanics are those for which the characters have no functional explanation. Thus, the use of a dissociated mechanic inherently means making decisions which have no analog to the character's decision-making. Dissociated mechanics are inherently inimical to roleplaying (since their use requires you to stop playing your role), although when properly designed they can enhance shared storytelling. The term "dissociated", it should be noted, is not synonymous with the term "unrealistic". In addition, it should be noted that all game mechanics are -- to varying degrees -- abstracted and metagamed(For example, the destructive power of a fireball spell in D&D is defined by the number of d6's you roll for damage and the number of d6's you roll is determined by the caster level of the wizard casting the spell. If you asked a character about d6's of damage or caster levels, they'd have no idea what you're talking about. But they could tell you what a fireball is and they could tell you that casters of greater skill can create more intense flames during the casting of the spell. Thus, the mechanics of a fireball spell are abstracted and exist only as part of the metagame, but they are nonetheless associated with the game world.)

Three Clue Rule: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. This is the bedrock principle for building rigorous and flexible adventure scenarios. Plan multiple paths to success. Encourage player ingenuity. Give yourself a failsafe.


D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations: There are several common disconnects between what people expect from D&D and what D&D was actually designed to deliver. The problem with having false expectations about what “Strength 20” or “15th level” really means is that it creates a dissonance between what the rules allow characters to do and what you think characters should be able to do. For example, if you think that Conan should be modeled as a 25th level character, then you’re going to be constantly frustrated when the system treats him as a demigod and allows him to do all sorts of insanely powerful things that the literary Conan was never capable of. From there it’s a pretty short step to making pronouncements like “D&D can’t do Conan” (or Lankhmar or Elric or whatever). If, on the other hand, you properly calibrate your expectations then you're empowering yourself to (a) make the most of the game and (b) tweak it to your own tastes.

Death of the Wandering Monster: Wherein we discuss the fallacy of the 15-minute adventuring day, and explicate the reasons why this supposedly systemic flaw is, in fact, an error in the technique of the Dungeon Master. (Mostly.)

Fetishizing Balance: What's wrong with balance? Nothing. However, if you fetishize the pursuit of balance in a way that needlessly limits your flexibility, then you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Having an arbitrary baseline is necessary in order to balance the game -- but there's no need to shackle yourself to that baseline as if it were some sort of mandatory standard.

Revisiting Encounter Design: The fetishization of balance, combined with a rather inexplicable misreading of the core rulebooks, led to an extremely narrow-minded approach to designing encounters in the 3rd Edition era. This approach was not consistent with previous editions of the game; was explicitly contradicted by the rulebooks; exacerbated the problems of the 15-minute adventuring day; and greatly reduced flexibility in running and designing adventures.

Save-or-Die Effects: Save-or-die abilities bypass the time-tested ablative system of D&D combat. This is problematic. WotC's solution? Get rid of the abilities. My solution? Keep the abilities, fix the mechanics.

Gygaxian Naturalism (James Maliszewski): "[Gygaxian naturalism] refers to a tendency, present in the OD&D rules and reaching its fullest flower in AD&D, to go beyond describing monsters purely as opponents/obstacles for the player characters by giving game mechanics that serve little purpose other than to ground those monsters in the campaign world."



Random DM Tips: Putting the "Magic" Back in Magic Items

Random DM Tips: Running Combat

Treasure Tells a Story (Ben Robbins)

Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines (James Maliszewski)

The Dungeon Alphabet (Michael Curtis)

March 3rd, 2009


If you came to D&D with 3rd Edition, chances are you don't know what "prime requisites" are. 

In OD&D each of the three classes -- fighting-man, magic-user, and cleric -- had an ability score as a "prime requisite". These prime requisites served two purposes:

(1) In order to change classes, you needed to have an unmodified prime requisite score of 16 or better in the class you wanted to change to. (Although this rule was "not recommended", except for elves who had the racial ability to freely switch at will between fighting-man and magic-user at the beginning of each adventure. It is open to interpretation whether elves needed to have the necessary prime requisites in order to do that. There is also the oddity that magic-users cannot change into clerics and vice versa... but nothing stops them from first changing to fighting-men and then changing to the other. But I digress...)

(2) If you had a high prime requisite score in your class you earned additional XP. If you had a low prime requisite score your XP was penalized, as described on the "Bonuses and Penalties to Advancement due to Abilities" table:

Prime requisite 15 or more

Add 10% to earned experience
Prime requisite 13 or 14 Add 5% to earned experience
Prime requisite of 9 - 12 Average, no bonus or penalty
Prime requisite 8 or 7 Minus 10% from earned experience
Prime requisite 6 or less Minute 20% from earned experience

In later editions, certain classes also had minimum ability scores and prime requisites that had to be met. For example, in the 1st Edition of AD&D in order to "become a paladin a character must be human, have a strength of not less than 12, a minimum intelligence of 9, a wisdom of 13 or more, a minimum constitution of 9, and not less than 17 charisma".



In the currently predominant culture of gaming -- where the fetishization of balance is, at best, barely lurking out of sight -- this entire design schema is impossibly alien. It's practically anathema. Why would you take a PC who was already more powerful than the other PCs (because they have higher ability scores) and make them even more powerful (by giving them XP bonuses)?

And when you get to classes with minimum ability score requirements, things seem to become even less comprehensible. Many of these classes were just flat-out better than the other classes. So now you're taking powerful characters, making them more powerful by giving them access to better classes, and then allowing them to advance more quickly to even more power by giving them XP bonuses.

I've seen people point to this as an example of Gygax being "incompetent". These people annoy me because they're missing the point: Gygax didn't fail to balance character vs. character. That just wasn't one of his design goals. He was trying to accomplish something very different.

The first thing you're seeing here is Gygaxian naturalism. Why are the guys with better ability scores able to access more powerful classes? Because they're more talented.

There is a balance being modeled here, but it's subtler than the mechanical equivalence at the beginning of a Chess match.

Basically Gygax was saying: "Look, Character A has more talent than Character B. The ability scores tell us that. So that means that Character A can get into major league baseball and Character B is going to be stuck in the minor leagues. And that means that Character A is going to earn more money."

At this point modern afficionados of "balance" will protest, "But if Character A is in the major leagues and Character B is in the minor leagues, then they'll never get to play on the same field!"

And Gygax would say, "Look, kid, you're abusing the metaphor."

Because, at this point, we need to understand the other fundamental underpinning of OD&D play: Darwinian attrition.



In OD&D it was assumed that PCs would die. In fact, it was assumed that the vast majority of PCs in the campaign would end up dead.

This had two important impacts on the way the game was played and, thus, the way the game was designed:

(1) On the one hand, if your character "sucked" compared to the other PCs, it didn't really matter all that much. After all, he was probably going to be dead sooner rather than later. Dungeons were dangerous places.

(2) On the other hand, the mere act of survival was something to be lauded. Longevity was an achievement. And achieving that longevity with a "sucky" character? Ah, that was something to be lauded even more! It was like playing with a handicap.

This is something that gamers familiar with the modern paradigms of design sometimes struggle to understand, so let me try to explain by way of analogy. Imagine that you're playing Name That Tune

Me: I can name that tune in 8 notes.

You: I can name that tune in 6 notes.

Me: I can name that tune in 5 notes.

You: I can name that tune in 4 notes.

Me: Name that tune!

You: Aw, man! I have to name that tune in only 4 notes, while you could name it in 5 notes! It's not fair! My character is much less powerful than yours!

Okay, the analogy kinda broke down there somewhere, but hopefully the point is clear: Yeah, that guy over there has better ability scores. Are you going to whine about it, or are you going to show him that you can play the game better than he can, scores or no scores?



Of course, the argument can be made that the random generation of ability scores has nothing to do with the skill of the players involved. But so what? Were you under the illusion that craps is a game of skill?

See, part of the trick here is that character creation was considered part of the gameplay.

It was gameplay that was fundamentally different from the gameplay that happened once the dungeon exploration actually began, but it was still an important and integral part of the game. Like the rules for setting up terrain in a wargame. Or the bidding in a game of Bridge.

The game that, in my opinion, best understood that character creation was part of the game (and, consequently, is most misunderstood by many modern gamers) is the original Traveller.

In Traveller, all newly created characters start at 18 years of age. You could then attempt to enlist in one of six services: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, or Other. Successfully enlisting required a successful roll of the dice (some services were more difficult to join than others). Each term of service lasted for 4 years and carried with it the chance of injury or death (determined with another dice roll -- some services were more dangerous than others). Depending on what service you had joined, you would gain different skills and training during your term. And once a term was completed, you could opt to re-enlist, join another service, or end your career and start play.

Wait a minute... did I just say that your character could die during character creation? Yes. I did.

I've seen lots of people describe that system as crazy. But the concept really shouldn't be that hard to grasp: Mechanically, character creation in Traveller is a gambling game. You're gambling the risk of death, injury, or debilitation from age against the possibility for better skills and training.

And the brilliant part of it, frankly, is that Traveller used the gambling mechanics to encourage players to create characters with interesting and intricately detailed backgrounds. What did you do during that term of service? Why did your character choose to re-enlist? What did you do to learn those particular skills?

The original Traveller rulebook may have summed up this approach to game design best when it said:

The Solitaire Game: One player undertakes some journey or adventure alone. He or she handles the effects of the rules as the situation progresses. [...] In addition, there are many aspects ideally suited to solitaire consideration. A single player can spend time generating characters, designing starships, generating worlds and subsectors, planning situations, and mapping out ideas to use in later group scenarios.

Under this design philosophy, rolling up characters was more than just a means to an end: It was meant to be fun in and of itself. There's a little bit of gambling -- a little bit of exciement -- in that moment when the dice fly and the fate of your character is shaped before your eyes.



Of course, in most modern gaming character attrition is low. The goal of "survival" has taken a backseat to the development of character, exploration of world, and the telling of stories. And, as a result, some of the necessary elements that make Gygaxian balance work no longer exist.

But I still think we can learn some valuable lessons from Gygaxian balance. There is more to a roleplaying game than mechanical equivalence.

It's also important to remember that, given the open-ended nature of roleplaying games, true mechanical equivalence can only be achieved by artificially narrowing both the range of potential characters and the breadth of possible or expected gameplay. (4th Edition, notably, does both.)

There's something to be said for characters with long lives and the long arcs of development that those lives make possible. But there's also something to be said for the capricious whim of fate that makes victory meaningful because failure is always an option.

And for Arneson and Gygax, both of these things could be true at the same time.

March 4th, 2009


In my essay "Festishizing Balance", I talked about the ugly side of balance: The point where the obsessive desire to measure up against some arbitrary baseline results in people needlessly acting against their own best interests.

But I also made a point in that essay of making it clear that balance is also an important element of game and scenario design. On the other hand, a lot of confusion arises because people actually mean very different things when they talk about "balance". In my Reactions to OD&D yesterday I talked about Gygax looking for a "very different type of balance" than the balance of mechanical equivalence.

Let's talk about this for a bit.

CONCEPT BALANCE: Concept balance maintains that all character concepts should be equally viable. In other words, the guy wanting to play Conan the Barbarian and the guy wanting to play Robin Hood should both be equally effective in combat. Why? Because otherwise the system is inhibiting creativity (by making it less attractive to play Conan and/or Robin Hood). In addition, these less effective character concepts serve as "traps" for inexperienced players -- they think it would be cool to play Conan, but instead they find themselves always playing second fiddle to Robin Hood. It requires at least some degree of system mastery in order to recognize and avoid these traps.

NATURALISTIC BALANCE: Naturalistic balance, on the other hand, recognizes that not all character concepts are realistically equal. If you're playing in a realistic World War II game, then the martial arts specialist is just not going to be as combat effective as the guy with a machine gun. (However, naturalistic balance should not be misunderstood as being equivalent to a desire for "realism" in a game.)

SPOTLIGHT BALANCE: With spotlight balance, characters focus on disparate types of gameplay and the balance between them is achieved by the GM making sure that all types of gameplay get an equal share of playing time. For example, when confronted with both Conan and Robin Hood, the GM needs to make sure that there are equal opportunities for both melee specialists (Conan) and ranged specialists (Robin Hood) to show off their best stuff.



The problem with concept balance is that it requires you to severely limit either (a) flexibility of character creation; (b) the scope of gameplay; or (c) both.

Many advocates of concept balance will, at this juncture, attempt to degrade the concept of "flexibility" as being the "freedom to play a weakling". While it certainly can mean that, flexibility more usefully means "I want to focus my character creation resources on gameplay X versus gameplay Y".

The inherent imbalance of flexibility becomes apparent when you realize that different campaigns will feature different mixes of gameplay types.

A simple example of this is the difference between a campaign focusing on lots of melee fighting in the tightly confined quarters of a typical dungeon (favoring Conan) and a campaign focusing on lots of ranged fighting in the wilderness (favoring Robin Hood). A more complex example of this was the subject of my essay "Death of the Wandering Monster" -- certain types of campaigns allow the spotlight balance between fighters and wizards to skew one way or the other.

Let's make this an extreme example: If you're playing in a campaign with little or no combat, a fighter is less useful. If you're playing in an entirely urban campaign, druids and rangers become less useful. If you're playing in a campaign taking place entirely within an area of antimagic, wizards become less useful.

(D&D makes an easy example for this sort of thing because one major type of character creation resource investment is neatly encapsulated in a single decision point: Class selection.)

There's no way to "balance" the fact that fighters aren't very effective in campaigns where there isn't any combat without either (a) disallowing people from playing a fighter (limiting the flexbility of character creation) or (b) disallowing campaigns that don't feature a lot of combat (limiting the scope of the game).

This is why many proponents of combat balance often focus exclusively on a character's combat effectiveness: By narrowing the scope of the game to a single type of gameplay (combat), concept balance becomes possible.

The other way to work around this issue is to isolate each distinct style of gameplay and then make sure that all characters are balanced within each style of play. (This, of course, is another example of limiting the flexibility of character creation.)



We've already touched on the problem with naturalistic balance: It invalidates character concepts and creates potentially unforeseen "booby traps" in character creation that require system mastery to avoid.

The result is that people end up with characters who aren't fun to play. Combined with the typical modern paradigm of gaming in which character attrition is low, players can end up stuck for a very long time playing characters they don't want to play any more.

Partial solutions to this problem include allowing players to redesign sub-par characters or switch to entirely different characters. But these are only partial solutions: If someone wants to play Robin Hood and the system doesn't make Robin Hood a viable concept, then it doesn't matter how many times you let them re-design the character -- they still won't be playing what they want to be playing.



The problem with spotlight balance is that it can mean that characters in spotlight A have to sit and watch while characters in spotlight B are doing their thing.

For example, look at the "decker problem" in cyberpunk games (such as Shadowrun). In these games, non-deckers frequently have to stand idly by and do nothing while the decker characters hack into a computer system. This problem arises partly because of scenario design (hacking frequently happens while nothing else of interest is going on) and partly because of mechanical design (actions taken while hacking take less game time than non-hacking actions).

Concept balancers would try to fix this problem by either (a) getting rid of decker play (narrowing the scope of the game); (b) requiring that all characters be capable of participating in decker play (limiting the flexibility of character creation); or (c) figuring out how to combine decker and non-decker activities into a single type of gameplay.

(For example, I understand that the most recent edition of Shadowrun uses augmented reality to effectively fold hacking into the combat-and-stealth gameplay of a typical 'run.)

In a more general sense, spotlight balance requires that a GM be capable of designing scenarios involving more than one type of gameplay. In addition, either:

(1) The scenario must allow for both gameplay A and gameplay B to be happening simultaneously, with the GM flipping back and forth between the split party; or

(2) Characters must have at least some abiltiy to participate in all forms of gameplay.

The former, frankly, is non-trivial and requires an experienced and talented GM. The latter, however, can be mechanically achieved and is, in fact, the default method for classic D&D play.



So, to sum up: The problem with concept balance is that it requires limiting the scope and flexibility of the game. The problem with naturalistic balance is that it offers unfun options. And the problem with spotlight balance is that it requires characters to sometimes NOT be in the spotlight.

But, on the flip-side, there are plenty of people who will stand up and say, "Problem? What problem?"

Some people have no problem with the scope and flexibility of the game being curtailed, if it means that they can have fun within the resulting focus.

Some people have no problem with a game requiring a certain degree of mastery, if it means that they get sensible and flexible results.

Some people have no problem with being an audience to awesome, if it means that -- when their turn comes -- they get to be awesome, too.

There is no One True Way to be achieved here. All of these forms of balance have their disadvantages and their advantages. Which trade-offs you prefer is going to be a matter of personal taste.



With that being said, allow me to use my soapbox to talk about my own, personal sweet spot.

CONCEPT BALANCE: I like immersive roleplay and open, sandbox-style scenarios. Thus I prize both flexibility in character creation and a broad scope of potential gameplay. As a result, I have no taste for the trade-offs demanded by concept balance.

However, that doesn't mean that the lessons of concept balance should be completely ignored. While I don't necessarily believe that all character concepts need to be legitimate options, I do believe that all legitimate character options should be viable in the game system.

NATURALISTIC BALANCE: My preference for immersive roleplay and sandbox-style scenarios similarly makes naturalistic balance appealing to me. The need for system mastery, on the other hand, is not inherently appealing to me, but flexibility and meaningful choice both require the possibility that poor choices can be made. Ergo, I'm not particularly averse to the negative aspects of naturalistic balance, while remaining open to its positive aspects.

SPOTLIGHT BALANCEI like my players to have many different gameplay options for overcoming a given obstacle. And I recognize that giving players meaningful choice in character creation means allowing them to choose where to focus their character creation resources.

Therefore, I embrace spotlight balance.

Fortunately, when you embrace open-ended scenario design, spotlight balance tends to take care of itself. When you give players the ability to craft their own course of action, they'll defend their own interests and pursue those strategies and tactics which best reflect their own strengths. (You'll need to watch out for players who get excluded from the group's decision-making process, but that's a group dynamic that will cause problems far beyond the issues raised by spotlight balance and would need to be dealt with in any case.)

I also tend to believe that, when spotlight balance is working, the problems commonly associated with it aren't actually meaningful problems. Even if all of the PCs are perfectly balanced for combat and your entire game is completely dedicated to combat, each PC is still only capable of being at the center of attention for a limited amount of time. (If there are X PCs, then that time is limited -- on average -- to 1/Xth of the game session.) If you don't like being an audience for the awesome things the other players are doing, then you're never going to be satisfied with anything except solo and one-on-one play. (Me? I like having an audience for my escapades and I like watching the clever escapades of others.)

So, in my opinion, most people who protest that they have a problem with spotlight balance acutally mean that they have a problem with spotlight imbalance -- in other words, someone else is getting more than their fair share of the spotlight.

What I will concede is that spotlight play is not something that can be mechanically enforced within the traditional structure of a roleplaying game. (It can be mechanically enabled, but that's different.) Ultimately the GM, working in concert with the group dynamic, must make sure that the spotlight gets turned to each PC in turn. This is something that must be managed in the moment. It can't even be easily quantified. Knowing where, when, and how to focus a spotlight depends on the tastes of your players and the circumstances of the session. It's a matter of pacing and narrative need, coupled with practicality and an honest gauge of players' current interests, attention, and energy. It's more an art than a science.

As a final note, I'll point out that the exact mixture of concept, naturalistic, and spotlight balance depends on the game and the campaign concept I'm running at the time. Just as there's no One True Way, in my experience there's also no One Size Fits All solution to these issues.

March 4th, 2009 (2nd Update)


This day marks the one year anniversary of Gary Gygax's death. He left a complicated legacy, but there's no doubt that the world is a poorer place without him.

If you're looking for a way to commemorate a visionary life that has, directly or indirectly, touched us all, then I heartily recommend Jeff Reints' Things You Can Do To Keep Gygax's Memory Alive.

On Monday, I'll be running another group through the Caverns of Thracia using the OD&D rules. I'm going to make a point of toasting the legacy of both Gary Gygax and Bob Bledsaw (the founder of Judges Guild, who we also tragically lost this past year).

MARCH 2009: 

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4 - PART 5 - PART 6