Fifth Generation: Preparing for a Session


wordstudio asked if I might write a post about how I prepare to run a session of tabletop gaming. I am here for such requests!

You should know right off the bat that I’m still an enthusiastic amateur of a GM. I’ve been running games, off and on, for only a few years, after Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition came out (in 2008, Google says, and wow, time flies). I’ve been

I’m always curious to know how different GMs prepare for play and how that preparation turns into actual play in the moment. This is a great look at Cameron’s approach.

Playtesting and critique require a lot of different skill sets to do well. it requires more than an opinion and more than a desire to design or fix something yourself. It is a different skill, shaping one thing into another, than it is to create a thing from scratch. Seeing what something can be — maybe what it tried to be in addition to what it is — takes practice. “Here, let me rewrite that for you” or “Here, let me correct that for you” is a different act than making a thing exist in the first place. Obvious, probably, but worth saying.

Seventeen People

You want a magnificent, beautiful, worthy analysis of a great story? I give you Jon White’s “Seventeen People,” a spectacular analysis of his favorite hour of television.

Required reading for you screenwriters, fans of The West Wing, haters of Dire Bochcoization, and dual-classed (or wannabe dual-classed) writer-designers.

Storyboard Fountain

Software developer Charles Forman is developing an app that puts script and storyboard side by side. This page, where he describes why this tool is needed, demonstrates that he has an extremely keen understanding of what the hell he is talking about.

A pre-production process that rigorously uses a tool like this to meaningfully iterate ideas could be transformational.

Wizards of the Coast announces free Dungeons & Dragons basic rulebook

Back when Mike Mearls tweeted that the core hardcover rulebooks for D&D wouldn’t be necessary to create characters or run campaigns, I suspected we might see something like this announced soon. I didn’t suspect it’d cover 20 levels of play and be a free PDF, though. Well played, Wizards of the Coast.

These move puts the big D&D hard-back books into a premium category that their prices reflect. Instead of everyone needing a Player’s Handbook, maybe that $150 expenditure gets made over time and for the whole group. That’s nice.

I expect some lower-priced impulse buys for the game to be announced soon, too. Presumably the focus on worlds and storylines for new products is also meant to help Wizards of the Coast revitalize the licensing appeal of D&D-based IPs — adding value to the Forgotten Realms and other worlds as fuel for adaptations and interpretations through books, video games, and maybe film.

This looks like a long-term brand-rebuilding effort to me and I appreciate it. D&D isn’t the sole gatekeeper for newcomers to the hobby anymore — not like it used to be — but it’s still an essential reference point and highway into roleplaying games. See you this summer, D&D.

Is Dungeons & Dragons More Console Than Game?

The word’s spreading: the new Dungeons & Dragons books and starter set are on the way this summer and fall.

Each of the game’s traditional core books — the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide — look to carry a suggested retail price of US$50. That sounds like a lot for a game book, right now, and when you add up that buy-in total to $150 for the DM ($50 per non-DM player, presumably), it seems even higher.

$50 is about right for a console game and some board games, though. Those games have double-digit hours of play in them, let’s say. Is that what you expect from D&D — 12-50 hours of play? Then the price may well be too high.

(Yes, this means Dungeon World is an even better bargain. Good! I have room in my life (and, if I’m careful, maybe my wallet) for both games.)

But if you compare D&D to an operating system or game console — the firmware that’ll run countless dungeons and campaigns and game worlds — that $150 seems pretty reasonable. Factor in the idea that you can probably buy it in three installments of $50 and I start to see the thinking at Wizards of the Coast. D&D is a big, big game with countless hours of potential play.

I floated this idea on Twitter back when this price was first rumored and got a lot of static for suggesting that D&D is more console than game. The more I think about it, though, the more I think that’s probably a fair comparison. What do you think?

Putting Video Games in Analog Boxes

EVE Online is Ameritrash.

This occurred to me this morning while reading a definition of Ameritrash in Greg Costikyan’s Uncertainty in Games. With it’s long, fiddly play style, emphasis on PvP, and broad swaths of rampant uncertainty, EVE Online would probably be a big-box, 8-hour tabletop game, were it such a thing.

World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online are, in their PvE modes, rather more Eurogames, albeit still highly complex and long-playing for that label. They’re like a lot of tiny Eurogames strung together. Quests, or even quest chains, are little Euro-style experiences.

The trick is not to think through this exercise by medium, genre, or format but by specific title. First-person shooters should be taken individually, for example, not as a group. But imagine your favorite video game in a box, packaged for immediate and finite play, and think about how much it takes to get its defining experience out of it.

Sometimes complexity or volatility is added to extend the gameplay loop or the number of gameplay loops you’ll pursue — without actually adding complexity to the game’s core experience. (I’m thinking of MMOs here, right now.) Sometimes complexity or volatility is part of the game’s core identity. This varies despite the perspective and activity of play.

Mass Effect 3’s single-player campaign and multiplayer game can be seen as different products, for example, in which one is an American-style RPG and the other is a robust mix of Eurogame and American short-play elements.

This’ll be in the back of my head throughout the day, now, as I start thinking about other video games in analog terms again.

Things Take Time

Here’s something I said to Jeff Tidball earlier this morning. It’s something I sometimes say to myself — and I encourage you to say it to yourself, too. I’ll rephrase it here to reflect how I think it to myself and others who aren’t Jeffs Tidball.

Things take time. Time’s always moving. You’re really doing this, in reality, so how long it takes you is how long it takes.

Stress happens. We feel like everything has to be done right now to be done properly, sometimes. But “now” is a round hole and the job we’re doing is sometimes a square peg.

A late project is late for a time but a bad project is bad forever, to paraphrase Mike Selinker.

So, yes, light fires under yourself to keep moving and cook your work to the right temperature … but let’s feel less bad about the fact that life gets in the way of work, sometimes. Let’s make good things and accept that we cannot control time as much as we’d like.