Funny Hat Gaming

An interesting commentary from someone who seems as dismayed as I am over the overuse of the Tolkeinian races, albeit coming at the matter from a somewhat different angle:

This is also why when other worlds use these now standard races as plug-in inhabitants, the effect is so often flat.  Instead of rooting these fantastical beings into cultures that make internal sense, instead of building these races of the same soil they inhabit, instead of giving them a language, D&D abstracts their tongues (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish), and gives short generic and somewhat contradictory descriptions of their culture, ready made to fit any world.  This is why, at least to me, the elves of Shannara feel uncompelling, and the night elves of Kalimdor, though their architecture is consistent, are as hollow as the mesh and skin combination used to represent them on the screen.

Basically he seems to be saying that Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Orcs worked so well in Tolkein because they were baked into the history of the world in important and meaningful ways, rather than copy/pasted in. I agree, and I think it dovetails with what I said in my own book:

In a work of fiction, an author may take months or years perfecting the plot and prose. They have the time and level of story control to properly explore inhuman characters. At the game table, however, we lack that same luxury of time for introspection. So we go with our human instinct—tinted through the lens of what is, in essence, a racial stereotype. What should be an alien, other-worldly creature instead ends up becoming a guy in a funny hat.

The Tolkeinian races, for all that they worked in The Lord of the Rings, aren’t something that you can just plug-in to a game and play with the same level of emotional depth as presented in stories that were shaped over decades.

View from the Gutters

So a few months ago I was invited to join a comic book roundtable podcast called View from the Gutters:

View from the Gutters is a bi-weekly round-table discussion about comic books. In each episode we focus on one graphic novel or collected volume of a series. We review the week’s topic work (with frequent digressions to jabber about other comics and creators, discuss the state of the industry, or just bash on Geoff Johns for a while), and then each host nominates a new comic to discuss on the next episode. At the end of each podcast we vote to select which nominated work we’ll be talking about next time, so you can read along with us.

If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you can check it out at (or on iTunes). My first episode is number 7, which just went up tonight. In that episode we discuss Batman: Venom.

I found an interesting article linked on reddit:

“‘Instant Ambiguity Sauces’ – How NOT to make an uninteresting game seem more interesting”

He makes some interesting points, although perhaps not as universally true as he might suggest. To my reading his main point (which I agree with) is that fun in games is often related to the agency of the player to make meaningful choices. Rather than give the player meaningful choices, however, game developers give players non-meaningful choices which are obfuscated so as to seem meaningful. Your quick time events, and the like—things which present the illusion of agency, but lack real substance.

This actually meshes with a conversation I had with my father about 20 years ago. Growing up I played a lot of board games with my father and older brother, and I often found myself at odds with my dad about what to play. I favored Monopoly, which I thought I was relatively good at, while my father usually insisted that we play either Risk or Acquire, which I always lost.

At some point I asked him why he preferred those games, and what he said to me was that Monopoly was a game of chance. Your ability to make choices was limited because the primary mechanism of the game was rolling the dice, which was random. The games he preferred, although having their element of randomness, were won or lost by the choices you made and the tactics you employed. I seem to recall him mentioning games like Chess and Go at the time, having essentially no randomness to them. The reason I liked Monopoly compared to other games is that, being the youngest and having the worst strategy, randomness actually favored me.

That conversation has stuck with me for a long time, and I find myself even today ranking games by how random they are. Settlers of Catan, for example, is VERY random. You live and die by the dice. Dominion on the other hand is much less so. You do draw random cards from a deck, but the primary mechanic of the game is choosing which cards to add to your deck, so you have a degree of control over what cards are available to draw. It’s easy to flood your deck with useless cards, and prevent yourself from drawing good hands.

Now, not every game is about tactics and strategy. Execution is not always an obfuscation, as the author of the post I linked above states. However, I find the post interesting overall because I find that player agency is frequently overlooked in discussions of what makes a game work or not.

The Game Master is now available from DrivethruRPG

I’m pleased to announce that The Game Master is now available as a softcover book through DrivethruRPG. You can order it by clicking on the banner to the right, or by clicking the banner below:

As a special thank you to anyone who has previously donated any amount of money for the eBook edition, please email me at and I will send you a special discount code to purchase the softcover edition.

The Game Master, Second Edition (and Print)

I’ve been preparing The Game Master for a print-on-demand edition, which should be available from Drive Thru RPG in the near future (about 2-3 weeks, most likely). However, since I was going through revising things anyway, I’ve also updated the PDF and ePub versions. The changes are relatively minor (a couple of heading changes, plus fixing a number of typos), and I’ve also added the new color cover which will be on the print edition.

The Second Edition is available now from the download page, and will be showing up on iTunes as soon as it clears their review process.

I will also be offering a discount on the print edition to anyone who has already made a donation for the digital edition. Watch this space for details.


I picked up a link off Reddit this morning titled How a Blind Player Improved Our Game. It makes some rather good points about how to describe things and its importance to the art of roleplaying. But it does so from the perspective of 4e D&D, and I wanted to talk about that for a moment.

The poster talks about bringing a blind player into the group, and how they suddenly need to describe… Well, everything, including their characters, previously rresented only by the relevant mini on the table.

Suddenly we realize that the lame mini Joe was using to depict his placement on the map looks nothing like the character he’s actually playing. But until he was asked to describe his character for the blind player he didn’t feel it necessary to add these details.

This represents a problem I had with 4e when it first came out, and in a greater sense RPG-minis as a whole: the moment you take the game out of my head/imagination and put in onto the game table is the moment that I cease to “be” my character. My character is that little pewter dude on the table. He is my avatar within the game space, and I control him, but he is not me.

Speaking only for myself, I have found this layer of separation between me and my character—and by extension the game-world as a whole—to be an intolerable burden to my role playing. The “video game” feel has never had anything to do with the rules of the game per se, so much as the fact that I am controlling a little man on a screen (board, whatever).

Think of it like translating a book to a film. The moment, say, The Fellowship of the Ring came out, Aragorn ceased to be the person I imagined in me head, and forever became Viggo Mortensen. The way I always imagined the characters and places of Middle Earth were replaced with those actors and special effects. While they were good movies, I’ve long felt somewhat robbed of the Middle Earth that existed in my mind.

As much as having a grid or hex map to play on clarifies combat, there is a part of me that hopes to resist their use forever because any game that takes place outside of my head will never be “real role playing” to me. I somewhat prefer the images in my head to a piece of plastic surrounded by glass beads and spare dice on a dry-erase board.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e

So the big unavoidable news today is that Wizards of the Coast is (no duh) working on Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.

The writing has been on the wall for a while now, so it’s not exactly a surprise, but this is the point where the designers will begin talking openly about what their vision for the game is going to be. I don’t have much to say about 5e itself yet, for obvious reasons, but I will be following its development closely. I do, however, have a few initial ponderings:

1) I’m cautiously optimistic. I was never a fan of 4e, so I’m hopeful that 5e will be a game that I want to play.

2) I would like to see a strong 4e community come into existence, on the same order as the one around Pathfinder. Whenever there is talk of a new edition, there are always edition warriors there ready to shit all over the other side. Given the evolution of retro-clones and Pathfinder, I’d like to see people understand that 5e is not a revision of 4e, but rather a system-fork.

Name aside, the various editions of D&D are essentially separate variations on a theme, not unlike the Final Fantasy series. While similar, each one is different, and enjoying one does not diminish the others. I hope that if the RPG community can sustain parallel lines of 3e, 4e, and 5e, it will convince fans of each to just leave each other the hell alone.

3) There were 8 years between the release of 3e and 4e (with a minor revision in 2003), but if WotC is aiming for a 2013 release date, that will only be 5 years between major system refreshes. That’s a worrisome number, which suggests to me that all may not be well in the house of WotC.

EDIT: Jerry over at Penny Arcade (should I call him Tycho? Are we still playing that pretense?) makes a couple of points in line with what I say in point 2 above, pointing out that Wizards is trying to remedy the—as Jerry puts it— balkanization of D&D and the fact that it’s a somewhat hopeless task. Every group already plays the game their own way.

I’m willing to double down on my previous assertion. I want to see D&D become the Baskin-Robbins Linux of RPGs. Let everyone have a flavor distribution they like.