Category: Game Design

I love and hate descriptive text. And I’ll get back to that point in a minute.

In the mean time: A few months after I was hired as Brand Manager for RPGs at WotC, our department was reorganized and a couple new people were brought in, including a new boss for me. Part of the idea was to modernize the way we managed our brands, and my new boss was hired in from Kraft on the back of his top-notch brand management expertise. The guy was frankly a dickhead, and most of his direct reports quit over the next few months, after which he was let go. But that’s another story: My story revolves around the bullet point.

See, one of the things he forced down our throats was a new style of business communications. (By “forced down our throats,” I mean (among other things) “made me rewrite a 30-page report seventeen times.”) I was frustrated and incensed—I’d been a professional writer for two decades, and I didn’t need this philistine to come along and tell me I’d been doing it all wrong that whole time. But one of his key requirements was that we summarize our main theses in bullet points instead of running text.

Despite my righteous indignation—and his short tenure at WotC—I eventually came to see that he was right. My prose might be scintillating, but scintillating prose belongs in novels and blogs, and maybe the odd RPG sourcebook. When your reader needs you to actually get to the point, you need to put your point in front of the reader quickly, directly, and in clear order.

Around this same time I was giving a lot of Powerpoint presentations. You know what makes Powerpoint presentations really boring? Someone who writes their presentation out on slides and then reads them to you. You know what makes them interesting? Someone who speaks in a lively, engaged manner, keeps your attention focused on him or her, and never seems to be paying any attention to the slides.

I don’t write many 30-page business reports these days, and I don’t give many Powerpoint presentations. But I write a fair amount of stuff for my games, and I present that stuff to my players. And that brings me back to descriptive text.

As your journey takes you northward along the road, you approach a curve and see a scene of devastation and violence. A large wagon sits half in a ditch. Twenty feet away, a second, smaller wagon lays on its side, with smoke rising from it. Seven goblins, armed with axes, bows, and spears, appear to be ransacking the baggage and goods from the wagons, while an eighth stands atop the larger wagon, waving a staff and speaking in an animated voice. It seems to be dressed in a more ornate manner than the others. Around the scene lay the bodies of five humans and half-elves, which have been brutally murdered. There are woods to the left, while the open, rolling pasture to the right is dotted with large boulders. Overhead, a glowering sky gives the whole scene a apocalyptic air.

Read that to your players. Go ahead, I dare you. When you look up from the text, their eyes will be more thickly glazed than a Smithfield spiral-cut sugar-cured ham. And when you’re done and they lift their heads from the table, their first question will be “what was that middle part?”

That passage might have been a scintillating batch of prose (it wasn’t, but it might have been), but this isn’t a novel. Your players need you to get to the point, and even more importantly they need you to be lively and engaging when you do it. And now we get back to my asshat boss and Powerpoint: Your players need bullet points.

Now read this to them:

  • Violent, apocalyptic scene: Bloody bodies, overturned wagons, rising smoke, and dense, low overcast
  • Two wagons: large one in ditch; small one on its side
  • Goblin in ornate dress rants from top of wagon; waves staff
  • A bunch of goblin warriors ransacking baggage
  • Forest to the east; open land with boulders to the west

Actually, don’t read it. Imagine the scene, then describe it. Spontaneously. Engagingly. In your own words. Glance at the bullet points just enough to remind yourself what you need to cover. And watch your players’ eyes: Hardly a lick of glaze to be seen—because you’re talking to them, instead of reading at them.

(As an aside, this cures my other pet peeve about descriptive text: Point of view. Too many writers of boxed text assume the players are approaching the scene from a particular angle. WRONG! The whole point of RPGs is that they’re nonlinear and the players may come from any angle! Bullet points make no such assumption; they simply state what is there. You add the point of view as you describe the scene.)

So what should your bullet points cover? Frankly, the same stuff you descriptive text would cover:

  • The physical aspects of the scene
  • The characters or monsters present and visible
  • Sounds, smells, and lighting
  • Atmosphere

Shoot for three or four bullet points—maybe five at most. The point is to convey the impression the scene makes, not to deliver every bit of information (more on that in a sec).

OK, you’re sold. The wisdom of my method is clear to you. But how do you master this technique short of sending seventeen drafts to my short-lived ex-boss? Follow these simple tips:

  • Focus on what the characters would see in their first impression of the scene
  • Make the most striking element of the scene your first point, and then go in descending order from there. Perhaps the dragon in the center of the cave is the most striking thing. Or maybe it’s the staggering size of the chamber. Or the waves of intense heat rolling over the heroes.
  • Remember that you don’t have to describe everything. If you use a battlemat, that alone will answer a lot of questions (like how big the room is, the exact number of orcs, and where the table is located).
  • Keep your language general (“a large hearth” is better than “a 12-foot wide hearth”)
  • Leave the fiddly details, like what specific weapons the goblins are armed with, out. Your players can always ask for clarification. This keeps your presentation simple, and if they do ask followup questions, you’ve turned the process of describing the scene from exposition to engagement. Which is always, always good.

(By the way, this focuses on the descriptive text for encounters or scenes, but it works just as well for monsters, NPCs, spell effects, or anything else you care to describe.)

I love descriptive text. I mean, I still put my bullet points in a gray box at the top of my encounter writeup. But what I hate is descriptive text, and this method has solved that problem for me. When the entire game industry recognizes my genius on this topic, it will solve it for everyone. What do you think—will it do the same for you?

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Five Things Everybody Knows about Campaign Details

  • A detailed campaign is filled with millions of little things your players don’t know, but which would be well known to their characters
  • You want your players to understand the world in which their characters move; the geography, history, and societies that shape the campaign’s events
  • It would be nice to have a mechanism for slipping in adventure-relevant details in a subtle manner
  • Prep time is always at a premium, and if interesting details can’t be dealt with efficiently they’re sometimes overlooked
  • Your players simply aren’t going to read a 100-page campaign manifesto, and you’re no Ed Greenwood anyway

It’s new campaign time. You’ve lavished your love and creativity on an entire world, detailing whole societies, structuring massive cities, envisioning factions and nations and allies and foes, and breathing life into a veritable army of NPCs. It’s going to be your magnum opus, the realm in which your imagination dwells for hundreds of game sessions to come. The scene of sweeping adventure and epic plots!

Or maybe you haven’t put so much work into it; maybe most of these elements are vague ideas that you will bring to life as your campaign finds its feet and the details require themselves.

Or, heck, maybe you aren’t making it up at all. Maybe you’ve just pulled an old copy of Planescape off the shelves, and you’re hankering to give it another whirl.

Either way, you face a challenge: Transfer the details and life and color and drama and atmosphere of your new setting from your imagination (or old boxed set that none of your friends own) to that of your players. Give them the depth of vision necessary to inform their character concepts and backgrounds and develop a necessary understanding of your world’s makeup and history. Not to mention slip in the odd adventure seed or vital insight or clue.

You could do this by writing out an entire campaign sourcebook—your own personal Eberron Campaign Setting. But you’re not Keith Baker, and even if you were, the truth is half of your players would never bother to read it anyway.

So here’s a different way to go about it. (This method, incidentally, owes something to Eberron; I was inspired to it by, I think, the Eberron Player’s Guide. Or perhaps Five Nations. Sorry I can’t confirm the exact title; my game collection is currently somewhere on the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.) As you prep for a game session, pick a topic. Perhaps something immediately relevant—a town or event or NPC that’s figuring significantly in the current adventure (or even session). Or perhaps something broader. Perhaps even something utterly unrelated, just an element of color for the setting.

Then come up with five bullet points. Something like this:

Five Things Everybody Knows about Hunting:

  • Only the lord of the land has the right to hunt it; other than small game and birds, commoners only hunt if they’re the lord’s huntsmen or (sometimes) archers in need of practice when the lord needs more meat than he chooses to hunt
  • Hunting requires hounds—to sniff out prey, pursue it, bring it to bay, and sometimes bring it down; rich hunters have different dogs for each task
  • The pike (and sometimes sword) are used for the kill; bows are peasant weapons
  • Hunting is often a social pastime; women even take part on occasion
  • Bears, boars, and even stags can kill (as can accidents and, well, “accidents”), and hunting has taken many lives

When I used this one in my campaign, a hunting trip was in the cards for that game session. It was mostly color, but there were a few elements that were relevant to how events might unfold. But this technique is great for filling the players in on important campaign drivers (factions, locations, events, etc.). It’s particularly good for breathing life into NPCs:

Five Things Everyone Knows about Céléstine:

  • Céléstine is around 15, slight of build with tumbling reddish-auburn locks that she is sometimes lax at keeping covered
  • Céléstine has a lovely singing voice, and often sings to herself while working
  • It’s no surprise that Céléstine attracts the attention of the boys; they have recently started to come to her attention and there’s a rumor of a boyfriend back at Triamore
  • Céléstine has no family at Triamore
  • Céléstine can be quite the chatter, but she’s actually somewhat quiet around new people

I bet that paints a pretty good picture for you; compare it to most NPC descriptions. Not bad for 86 words!

Anyway, read your five things to your players at the beginning of the session.

By sticking to bullet points you will force yourself to focus on the most relevant or interesting bits of information. Even more to the point, you won’t bore your players by reading out a long passage of exposition (bullet points encourage you to speak to your players, instead of read at them).

The process takes maybe ten minutes of prep time and five minutes at the beginning of the session. And it really enriches the campaign: One topic doesn’t seem like much, but ten sessions into the campaign you’ve hit on ten topics, and thirty session in you’ve hit on thirty. And the details will really stick with your players!

And it beats the hell out of writing a 100-page treatise. That nobody will ever read.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think!

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It is an inevitable truth in game design that the more attention and detail a game lavishes on a particular aspect or subsystem, the more that aspect or subsystem will be focused upon in play. In D&D’s 4th edition, the vast bulk of the mechanics are focused on combat, and a common criticism of the game is that is all about the combat–at the expense of other aspects of RPGs. This isn’t really true–there’s nothing about 4E that prevents or actively discourages story or roleplaying or all the other out-of-combat elements of a great campaign. But it’s easy to lose sight of that when the game’s mechanical and content spotlight is firmly on the combat aspect of the game.

Click through for a PDF

I use power cards in my campaigns, and I think they’re a brilliant element of play–the greatest character-organizing innovation since the advent of the pre-printed character sheet. But they exacerbate the problem: They record combat options. Even within combat, they tend to focus players’ attention on those options. A player’s turn is coming up, and his or her natural instinct is to look down at those powers and pick one. The player is encouraged to think about only those options, and tends not to look past them.

Tends not to knock over the brazier to dump hot coals on the baddie. To play dead so the bad guy passes by, thereby setting up a flank. To taunt or bluff or show off or lure the bad guy into a spot of dangerous terrain or blind him with a sunrod. Or whatever.

This isn’t an indictment of my players, by the way–I tend to do the same thing myself, even when I’m trying not to. Flip through the power cards to figure out which mode of attack will work best. And think no further.

Getting rid of power cards isn’t really a solution. That simply transfers the powers to a list or some other organizationally suboptimal method of record; the player is still left sorting through a power catalog. How then to encourage players to think of all the other things they might do in a combat encounter besides a conventional attack?

If the player’s tendency is to sort through his or her cards when trying to come up with ideas for saving the party’s bacon, why not make use of that? That’s what I’ve done. When I start my new campaign on Saturday, I’m going to give my players a new “power.” Not really a power, actually, but a reminder. It happens to be on a power card, because it’s when the players are sifting through their power cards that they most need that reminder.

This power isn’t really anything revolutionary in itself–basically, it says “you attempt to use a skill, bit of equipment, or something in the environment in a creative way.” But it’s phrased as a power and put on a power card. Feel free to download and print–I’ve put six copies of the card on a sheet so you can print out one page and have cards for everyone in the party.

What do you think? Useful to you? Any other ideas for encouraging players to think beyond their specific powers?

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Stephan: The Chevalier

The knight errant, the veteran Templar, the Norman lord, and sometimes even the mercenary band captain—all are chevaliers. The icon of medieval warfare, the mounted knight is the central element of sweeping battles, fierce jousts, and even tales of courtly love. Chevaliers can be idealistic crusaders or petty tyrants, protectors of the weak or cruel marauders who use their power and strength to take what they want when they want it.

If you’ve been following Martin’s tale (and really, you should be), you might be familiar with a fellow named Stephan. Well, Stephan, along with elements of the novel’s plot and a couple of other characters, was inspired by my Magica campaign which I ran for three years in the UK (and hope to wrap up with my players as soon as we can all get together again). The campaign kitbashed OGL rules (this was before 4E) with the top-notch Ars Magica magic system, and all of the character classes were hand-built to reflect a realistic medieval European setting.

So herewith I present a peek behind Stephan’s curtain, at the chevalier, or European knight, character class.

Click through for PDF

This is a pure fighting class optimized for a low-magic setting and designed to set apart nicely from the footsoldier, another class I wrote up for the setting. It also incorporates a few mechanics unique to my campaign, such as my status system. And, finally, it’s not the most inspiring class in the upper levels–my campaign was not intended to go beyond 12th or maybe 15th level, so I didn’t spend a lot of brain juice developing the classes beyond those lofty heights. All that said, though, with a few tweaks the class could easily find a home in nearly any low-to-moderate magic setting.

What do you think?

I’ve updated my skill challenges system a bit. Nothing overwhelming, but now with examples and somewhat more streamlined terminology. Love to have your comments, as well as feedback from anyone who’s given it a try (several people have tweeted that they were planning to do so).

Worth noting that the first posting of my skill challenge system drew hordes of visitors to the site–a gigantic spike, which obviously included many people who don’t normally visit. Is that you? If so, check out some of the other bits–frankly, the coolest thing here is Martin’s tale, and if you aren’t reading it you should. I’ll also point out that you can subscribe to the site via the link to the right. And that you can buy my stuff at DriveThruRPG. Cause I haven’t mentioned that in, like, three days.

Anyway, here’s the skill challenge doc:

Click through for a PDF

There’s a great article over at Kobold Quarterly detailing tricks and techniques for adding a sense of menace to the all-too-common trip through the wilderness in RPG games. It got me thinking about something I did in my Magica campaign a while back. In my case, what follows applied to a specific encounter, rather than a trip, but I think if fits right in.

To start with, I’ll backtrack to a more general tip: A long time ago, I took a bunch of D&D miniatures and I spray-painted them matte black. I use them in the game to indicate the position of perceived but unidentified creatures (real or imagined): “You see some movement in the darkness over here.” For best effect, I used rather shapeless creatures such as gibbering mouthers and choas beasts; their shapes suggest only menace.


Imagine this guy in solid black. I'd photograph the ones I've painted, but they're on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic right now.


So, in this particular encounter the heroes were in a Fey regio, searching for a wicked hag who had a key they needed. The hag was hostile, had thorough mastery of the frozen bog that was its realm, had a number of lesser allies, and could (and did) conjure a dense fog. It enjoyed toying with its prey, and had no desire to be vanquished by a party of heroes in a fair fight.

The encounter area was a mesh of difficult and impassible terrain, dotted with bits of cover-granting vegetation. (Another tip: Use minis that look like wicked trees–such as treants and twigblights–for actual trees. Looks creepy, and leaves the players with a slight unease that even the terrain features might be their enemies.) Down came the dense fog–regular visibility within two squares, concealment for another two, and no visibility beyond.

Initiative was rolled, and on went the blindfolds. A bit of a surprise for the players, and they were immediately pulled from their comfort zone–a key to injecting a sense of menace into play.

I then ran the encounter as normal, with the exception that only the active player could take off his blindfold (or, during the bad guys’ turn, the player being attacked). When he or she did, the only minis on the battlemat were the player’s and those within two squares. Within another two-square radius I replaced all minis–friend or foe–with the black-painted “generic” figures. The players had to remember–or guess–where other characters were, and as the fight progressed and characters moved from their original locations, that got harder and harder.

Obviously, this required some good record-keeping on my part, and it slowed the encounter down a bit (but only a bit). But those costs were more than offset by the tension and menace this very real fog of war conjured. The players were challenged–in fact, I’d say downright frightened, for a while at least. And I could play some unpleasant tricks, using hints of sights and sounds to tempt the players into isolating themselves.

I would use this sort of technique sparingly (in fact, I’ve only used it the once, though I might again if a similar situation called for it). It was very effective, but only for a specific sort of scene and in part because it was so unusual. Overuse or inappropriate use could turn this sort of thing from fun to frustrating.

Anybody done anything like this–or do you have any similar tips to share?

The skill challenge system in 4E was a really neat addition to Dungeons & Dragons. One of those things that made you say “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” (Not that nobody had–I remember a similar concept all the way back in one of the West End games (TORG? Shatterzone?), and I’m sure it’s been done elsewhere.) And not just as relates to 4E; the basic structure of the system could be applied to almost any RPG that includes skill checks.

The problem is, the 4E system just doesn’t really work that well. Great concept, but the execution has struggled.

This is obvious not just because of a number of alternative skill challenge systems that have floated around the gamerverse, but also because of multiple revisions WotC have made to the system. Which accounts for the “again” in the title of this post–I haven’t written on this before, but plenty of other people have.

You’d think with all these different stabs at the issue, this nut would have been cracked by now–someone will have come up with a skill challenge system that fires on all cylinders. And maybe someone has, but I haven’t come across it yet.

While many ideas address the mechanical balance of the skill challenge concept, none have satisfied me by providing the tension, drama, and uncertainty of outcome you get from a combat encounter. None of them challenge the players to adopt a strategy, rethink on their feet, and make difficult–or even meaningful–decisions about what course to take or how to expend resources. For the most part, it’s simply a matter of trying to figure out the correct skills to use, or how to shoehorn in the skills your character is best at, with those decisions having little impact on how the scene unfolds. Lather, rinse, repeat. Until the end of the encounter, at which time you succeed or–or, well, usually, nothing happens. Because half the time failure doesn’t really matter.

(To compound it all, my main campaign is OGL, in which there’s a much larger disparity between skill-oriented and non-skill-oriented characters than there is in 4E. Under the WotC system and most alternatives, characters with few (or inappropriate) skills actually penalize the party. That’s not fun for anyone.)

Click through for a PDF

So here’s my stab at it. It’s a crude document; I apologize for unpolished terminology and a lack of examples. But it gets the job done–I’ve used this system in my own campaign a handful of times, and at least one of my players has taken it to his game. Results have all been good, but that’s too small a sample size to be meaningful. Tweaks are inevitable–maybe your comments will lead to some.

Have a look. Give it a try. Let me know if you have any thoughts. Maybe this nth iteration of the skill challenge will close the gap between a great concept and a great game experience.

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