Breaking into the Video Games Industry, Part 1: Realities

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A friend of my father’s has a son interested in getting into the industry, and she asked if he could contact me to get some advice. He hasn’t yet, possibly because having your mom come home from work and suggest asking one of her acquaintances for advice isn’t exactly what a 21-year-old wants to do, but, if he does, I can point him here. Besides, I already put the thought into it, so here it goes.

Note: All of the information in this post and the following one is clearly based on my own anecdotal experience and that of people I’ve talked to about the subject. Other professionals in the industry may have a different experience, and it’s worth getting advice from anyone that seems to have a decent basis for it.

Making video games is a very attractive career for the modern young man (and not a few young women as well). A recent commercial for a for-profit school shows a couple of young guys lounging on a couch in front of a big screen, discussing where to put enemies. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to be literally an armchair designer?

It’s very seldom like that.

While working in this industry is probably one of the most interesting, fulfilling, highest-paying careers for a young person that loves playing games and whose skills tend towards the white collar but don’t necessarily extend to the truly specialized, it is, actually, a job a lot like any other. You’ll spend long hours in front of a monitor doing data entry. You’ll have to meet deadlines, go to meetings, and report to managers that you don’t always see eye-to-eye with. You’ll need to produce quality work on someone else’s schedule and may get in trouble if you can’t.

But, at the end of it, if everyone did it right, fun comes rolling out. You get to point at a game and take rightful credit for it. As I said, it’s still a job, but never forget that it’s a really cool job.

So how do you get to work on games?

That’s the tricky part for most kids. The distressing thing about the video games industry is its turnover rate: there are very few old and established gaming companies the way there are old and established firms that host most other white collar jobs. Even games published by the industry giants generally come from small studios employing only a few dozen people. For these companies, if they don’t continue to produce profitable games, they might get cut off (or, in the case of certain recent debacles, might get cut off because the publisher wants to keep all the profits). Startups are in an even worse situation: they need to constantly convince their investors that a profit is still in the offing or risk having the venture capitalists cut their losses and cut off funding.

What this means is that there is constant churn in the industry. One company fails after a couple of years and all its employees, now a couple of years better qualified (with the resumes to match), start hunting for positions. It seems like there’s at least one company with dozens of layoffs every month or two, especially in the current economic climate, which means there’s always at least a handful of trained professionals that could potentially be competing with an inexperienced prospective designer for any job. A lot of companies offering “junior” positions still require a year or two of experience, because they get enough applications from industry veterans that they don’t need to take the risk of untested talent. It’s possible that the only reason new blood gets into the industry at all is the occasional periods where the industry is growing and the loss of experienced workers that are looking for a more secure career, like (insert humorous, dangerous career of your choosing here to complete the joke).

So, despite this competition, how can a young person optimize his or her educational experience (or make use of an existing one) with an eye towards entering the video games industry? Tune in next week for the answers.

Rise of the Runelords, Final PC Sheets Part 1

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Taeva Nix

Female Gnome Rogue 15 / Barbarian 1

TN Small humanoid (gnome)

Init +15; Senses Darkvision (60 ft.), Low-light, Perception +22


AC 33, touch 23, flat-footed 25, Evasion, Improved Uncanny Dodge, Two-Weapon Defense ( +1 size, +8 Dex, +9 Celestial Armor (Small), +1 Shield, +3 Ring of Protection, +1 Mark of Wrath)

hp 212 (15d8)+(1d12)+90

Fort +16, Ref +26, Will +11


Speed 30 ft.

Ranged crossbow (light/small) +25 (1d6/19-20)

Melee sword +1 (short/small/adamantine/shock) +26/+21/+16 (1d4+4+1d6/19-20)

Melee two weapon fighting +23/+23/+19/+19/+14 (one sword is Abjurer Bane)

Special Attacks Bleeding Attack, Opportunist, Sneak Attack +8d6, Slow Reactions, Surprise Attack

Innate Spell-Like Abilities: dancing lights ( 1/Day) ghost sound ( DC 12, 1/Day), message (3/day), prestidigitation ( DC 12, 1/Day) speak with animals ( DC , 1/Day)

Magic Item Spell-Like Abilities: fly ( DC 14, 1/Day)


Str 16, Dex 32, Con 20, Int 14, Wis 12, Cha 14

Base Atk +12/+7/+2; Combat Manuever Bonus +15; Combat Maneuver Defense 38

Feats Armor Proficiency, Light, Armor Proficiency, Medium, Combat Expertise (-4 attack/+4 AC), Combat Reflexes, Double Slice, Improved Feint, Improved Initiative, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, Martial Weapon Proficiency, Shield Proficiency, Simple Weapon Proficiency, Two-Weapon Defense, Two-Weapon Fighting, Weapon Finesse

Skills Acrobatics +27, Appraise +9, Bluff +21, Climb +6, Craft (Locks +14, Traps +8), Diplomacy +10, Disable Device +37, Disguise +12, Escape Artist +15, Fly +11, Heal +1, Intimidate +17, Knowledge (Dungeoneering +6, Local +8), Perception +22, Perception (Trapfinding) +29, Perform (Untrained) +2, Ride +11, Sense Motive +21, Sleight of Hand +20, Stealth +32, Survival +14, Swim +8, Use Magic Device +7

Languages Common, Giant, Gnome, Orc, Sylvan

Special Qualities Defensive Training, Evasion, Fast Movement, Fast Stealth, Gnome Magic, Hatred, Illusion Resistance, Improved Uncanny Dodge, Minor Magic (Message), Keen Senses, Obsessive, Rage (7 rounds/day), Slow Reactions, Surprise Attack, Trapfinding, Trap Sense +5, Uncanny Dodge, Weapon Familiarity

Possessions Amulet of Health +4, Boots of Dexterity +6; Belt of Strength +4; Celestial Armor (small); Goggles of Night; Hat of Disguise; Masterwork Thieves’ Tools; Outfit (traveler’s/small); Sihedron Ring of Protection +3; Cloak of Resistance +5; Slippers of Spider Climbing (not worn); Sword +1 (short/small/adamantine/shock); Sword +1 (short/small/adamantine/shock/Sadistic); Bag of Tricks (Tan)

Veshenga Smythe

(Veshega Quida Tranger Marime Loweben Dolce Rhode Smythe)

Female Half-Elf Ranger 16

NG Medium humanoid (elf, human)

Init +11; Senses Low-light, Perception +15


AC 33, touch 24, flat-footed 22, Evasion ( +11 Dex, +3 Bracers of Armor, +6 Buckler +5, +3 Ring of Protection)

hp 224 (16d10)+64

Fort +17, Ref +24, Will +9


Speed 40 ft.

Melee koruvus’ prize +21/+23/+18/+13 (1d8+5/19-20; Evil Outsider Bane)

Ranged longbow +1 (composite/holy/shock/strength rating+4/Dominant) +28/+23/+18/+13 (1d8+5+1d6/19-20/x3; Holy; Transmuter Bane)

Special Attacks Favored Enemy (Aberration +4, Evil Outsider +4, Giant +4, Undead +2), Rapid Shot, Point Blank Shot, Manyshot, Deadly Aim, Vital Strike, Pinpoint Targeting


Str 18, Dex 32, Con 18, Int 12, Wis 12, Cha 14

Base Atk +16/+11/+6/+1; Combat Manuever Bonus +27; Combat Maneuver Defense 43

Feats Agile Maneuvers, Armor Proficiency, Light, Armor Proficiency, Medium, Deadly Aim (-5 attack/+10 damage), Endurance, Improved Critical (Longbow), Improved Precise Shot, Manyshot, Martial Weapon Proficiency, Pinpoint Targeting, Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot, Quick Draw, Rapid Shot, Shield Proficiency, Shot on the Run, Simple Weapon Proficiency, Skill Focus (Stealth), Vital Strike

Skills Acrobatics +14, Appraise +1, Bluff +10, Climb +12, Craft (Untrained) +1, Diplomacy +10, Disguise +4, Escape Artist +16, Fly +7, Handle Animal +12, Heal +7, Intimidate +12, Knowledge (Dungeoneering +10, Geography +10, Nature +14), Linguistics +4, Perception +15, Perform (Dance) +9, Ride +18, Sense Motive +11, Sleight of Hand +17, Spellcraft +5, Stealth +21, Survival +16, Survival (Follow or identify tracks) +24, Swim +10

Languages Abyssal, Common, Dwarven, Elven, Thassilonian, Varisian

Special Qualities Adaptability, Camouflage, Elf Blood, Elven Immunities, Evasion, Favored Terrain (Forest +4, Mountain +2, Underground +4), Hunting Companions, Improved Evasion, Keen Senses, Multitalented, Quarry, Swift Tracker, Track, Wild Empathy, Woodland Stride

Possessions Amulet of Health +4; Belt of Giant Strength +4, Buckler +5, Cloak of Resistance +4; Gloves of Dexterity +4, Koruvus’ Prize; Bracers of Armor +3; Explorer’s Outfit; Sihedron Ring of Protection +3; Ring of Freedom of Movement; Snakeskin Tunic; Handy Haversack; Efficient Quiver; Longbow +1 (Composite/Holy/Shock/Strength Rating+4/Dominant); Ring of Greater Cold Resistance; Boots of Striding and Springing

Shayliss Vinder

Female Human Infernal Sorcerer 13

LN Medium humanoid (human)

Init +2; Senses Perception -1


AC 19, touch 15, flat-footed 17 (+2 Dex, +2 Bracers of Armor, +3 Ring of Protection, +2 Amulet of Natural Armor); Arrow Snaring

hp 91 (13d6)+13

Fort +5, Ref +6, Will +7; Resist Fire 10, +4 vs. Poison


Speed 30 ft.

Melee dominant staff of mithral might +9/+4 (1d6+3; Transmuter Bane)

Special Attacks Corrupting Touch (8/day, 6 rounds), Hellfire (1/day, 13d6, DC 21, 13 rounds)

Spells (CL 13th, Ranged Touch +8, DC = Level + 5, +2 for Charm or Evocation)
6th (4/day)—Chain Lightning, Planar Binding (Devils only), Suggestion, Mass
5th (7/day)—Dismissal, Dominate Person, Elemental Body, Mind Fog
4th (7/day)—Charm Monster, Dimensional Anchor, Fire Shield, Phantasmal Killer, Wall of Fire
3rd (7/day)—Fireball, Flame Arrow, Protection from Energy, Suggestion, Tongues
2nd (7/day)—Detect Thoughts, Eagle’s Splendor, Flaming Sphere, Pyrotechnics, Resist Energy, Scorching Ray
1st (8/day)—Burning Hands, Charm Person, Mage Armor, Magic Missile, Protection from Evil, Protection from Good
0—Dancing Lights, Detect Magic, Flare, Light, Mending, Message, Prestidigitation, Ray of Frost, Read Magic


Str 12, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 12, Wis 8, Cha 20

Base Atk +6/+1; Combat Manuever Bonus +7; Combat Maneuver Defense 21

Feats Blind Fight, Deceitful, Eschew Materials, Greater Spell Focus (Evocation), Greater Spell Penetration, Improved Counterspell, Quicken Spell, Silent Spell, Spell Focus (Evocation), Spell Penetration, Still Spell

Skills Acrobatics +1, Appraise +17, Bluff +24, Climb +1, Craft (Untrained) +1, Diplomacy +10, Disguise +8, Escape Artist +1, Fly +9, Handle Animal +5, Heal -1, Intimidate +8, Knowledge (Arcana) +7, Perception -1, Profession (Shopkeeper) +6, Ride +1, Sense Motive -1, Sleight of Hand +1, Spellcraft +8, Stealth +1, Survival -1, Swim +1, Use Magic Device +8

Languages Common

Special Qualities Corrupting Touch, Infernal Resistances, Hellfire

Possessions Amulet of Natural Armor +2; Circlet of Charisma +2; Bracers of Armor +2; Gloves of Arrow Snaring; Ring of Counterspells; Sihedron Ring of Protection +3, Staff of Mithral Might

Bias: Toolkit vs. Designer Games

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There are two kinds of RPG engines:

  • Toolkit, or “Design what doesn’t matter,” games provide a wide range of systems, most of them quite shallow and generic, for accomplishing pretty much anything a character might attempt in the game. The goal can be said to simplify the game experience in order to allow the GMs and the players to do what they want, with the system there to abstract away the stuff the troupe isn’t worried about.
  • Designer, or “Design what matters,” games provide a narrow range of systems, most of them quite deep and focused, for accomplishing specifically the actions of the game that are supposed to be significant. The goal can be said to add fun mechanics to incentivize players to pursue the primary goals of the game. Concepts that are only rarely meant to show up in the game receive virtually no rules support.

The two extremes are probably the original Vampire: the Masquerade on the toolkit end and modern story games like Dogs in the Vineyard on the designer end. Vampire, despite being ostensibly meant to be low-combat and high-social, used a core mechanic that worked across all challenges in mostly the same way, and even gave more depth to combat (because it was necessary to get out of the way quickly). DitV and other story games, conversely, may have little in the way of support for anything but the few components that are meant to make up a session, and detailed rules for how to do those things.

In general, it feels like toolkit games could almost be called “traditional” games and designer games could be called “modern.” However, while D&D has certainly gained more of a “design what matters” focus in 4th Edition, even the original editions could be called designer games in the sense that combat and magic both had extensive rules while anything largely irrelevant to dungeon crawling was left up to GM fiat. Despite this contradiction, it does seem that even non-indie games take on more and more designer-game focus each year. For example, more and more games include some level of social combat system, seemingly included primarily to try to give social scenes the same richness of tactical options that combat scenes have long enjoyed.

I’ve discovered recently, though, that my bias is against designer games. While I really enjoy the theory of a really balanced system designed with a specific goal in mind, at the table I find that I’m much more comfortable with a system that will fade into the background and let me wing it. I have no patience as a GM for constructing scenes with the proper hooks to attach to specific interactions of player traits designed to lead to a perfect genre emulation. I just want to run a game and not have to ever reference the rulebook unless something really complex happens (and, if the system is universal enough that I can make a rules call with a reasonable certainty that it’s fair, so much the better).

Ultimately, I find D&D and WoD fundamentally easier and more fun to run than many modern games that have incorporated designer elements. I don’t know whether this is simply due to years of system mastery, or their nature as toolkit systems. But I have a nagging feeling that this somehow makes me a bad person, or at least a bad systems nerd.

Rise of the Runelords, Epilogue


Turtleback Ferry, Midwinter

Great bonfires burn away the afternoon chill, visible for miles across the frozen lake. The townsfolk were initially suspicious of a “the Dam’s Still Standing” party, but gave in to the fun once the Varisian music began to spread across the village just ahead of the smell of festival food. They started arriving the night before on boats, with a dozen more that couldn’t make the trip on their own spilling out of the very air this morning on the wings of the theurge’s teleports. The half-orc has been wandering across the ice to check the food every hour and add a new winter fish to the dinner, then racing back out to keep trying to ice fish through a surprisingly large hole.

But now the party is in full swing. Over half the movers and shakers of Sandpoint mingle with their counterparts in the village, in between helping a Tianish girl unload new kegs of Rusty Dragon Stout. A gaggle of middle-aged Varisian women fuss over the commander of Fort Rannick, who is smiling in a way that the locals have never seen while talking animatedly with a Varisian hunter of her own age who only has eyes for her… and, occasionally, for a probing glance at the Shoanti warrior tearing up the dance floor with his daughter. A redheaded gnome also watches them, trying to decide whether to join in the fun. She, in turn, is watched by a young gnomish man, trying to decide if it’s safe for him to ask her to dance.

Daylight quickly fades, but the party rages on into the night. Faeries from the nearby marsh glitter through the air, curious what the fuss is all about. A Black Arrow dances for the first time in thirty years. The Sheriff and Mayor of Sandpoint have a very frank discussion about what it means to have heroes as full-time residents. An ancient Varisian seer pontificates to her distant cousins, a cup of tea in one hand and a mug of ale in the other. And a Shoanti mage and his beautiful bride watch the moon rise across the frozen lake, holding each other as if for warmth despite their potent protections against the elements.

In a moment not far away, this will be over. Perhaps only to the true elation of one of them, a dangerous ally has sent word that she is coming with answers. Again, they’ll have to worry about what is to come: missing gods, tainted bloodlines, a mysterious key, and a sinister pogrom against the last true lords of Cheliax.

But, now, there are food and friends, music and family, and great fires to ward off the cold and darkness. It is enough. Their problems will keep for tomorrow.

In the distance, a voice shouts in triumph from across the ice, followed by a faint but unearthly howl. “Guys! I think I caught it!”


Two Trinities

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The classic “holy trinity” of MMOs is the tanker, nuker, and healer: One character to take nearly all the hits, only character to deal nearly all the damage, and one character to repair nearly all the damage.

  • Tanks typically have the highest hit points and the most armor, but the most essential facet of the role is the ability to concentrate fire upon themselves. This is typically accomplished via taunt mechanics: either an ability that forces the enemy to attack them, or a range of abilities that the enemy’s AI interprets as a disproportionate threat. Since most MMOs seem to have the enemy AI simply attack whoever has done the most damage to the enemy, taunt-based abilities tend to be treated as if they did high damage, even though the tank generally does far less than the nuker.
  • Nukers, or “DPS” classes, have a much higher damage per second output than the others. In certain games, their damage rating may be required to defeat certain enemies (as the other classes’ DPS is not sufficient to overcome these enemies’ healing rates). Traditionally, DPS classes are much less resilient than the tanks, and will be defeated much more quickly by the enemies if they catch their undivided attention. Thus, a tank is far more useful for keeping them alive and is far more economical to heal.
  • Healers have the ability to repair damage to ally HP in excess of that ally’s innate healing abilities and recovery rate. Without a healer, a group of tanks and DPS can generally only fight for a set period of time directly related to the incoming damage from the enemies: once their HP runs out, they are done fighting one way or another. A healer skews this limitation, able to compensate for damage. With a good healer on the team, the limit to the duration of a battle becomes much longer and is limited only by the speed of the healer’s recharge of abilities and endurance/mana.

A second trinity encompasses “support” roles: buff, debuff, and control. While these are often considered subsets of healing, they can be distributed among the other classes as well.

  • Buffing is the process of adding effects to allies that increase their power in certain spheres: generally attack or defense. A buffed character will generally take less damage and/or do more damage, effectively acting as a higher level while the buff is active.
  • Debuffing is the opposite of buffing: applying effects to enemies that make them deal less damage and/or take more damage. While debuffs are very similar to buffs, they aren’t balanced one-to-one: if a buff and a debuff were exactly equivalent in their effects, it would be more efficient to use the buff, as the intent is to defeat the enemy quickly, removing the debuff, while a buff might last through several fights.
  • Control is any power that restricts an enemy’s actions or movement. The classic controls are roots (which hold the enemy in place but allow it to continue attacking) and stuns (which completely incapacitate the enemy). Other control include fears (which usually keep the enemy from attacking but allow it to move and defend) and silence-type effects (which prevent the enemy from using a certain class of abilities). Some MMOs, like the original Guild Wars, include soft controls: an action is not impossible, but doing it is tactically unsound (e.g., making an attack deals damage to the attacker).

Most MMOs stick very closely to this model. The question is, do they do so because it’s a tried and true formula, or because combinations of the two trinities can account for nearly every action programmable for an MMO.

What effects outside the two trinities are possible, but rarely or never used?

The Spires of Xin-Shalast, Part 3

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What are you doing here?

As Karzoug’s minions begin testing the walls of their hastily erected fort in the gateway to his demiplane, Balekh hurriedly applies magical protections to the party. As prepared as they’ll ever be, they all prick their thumbs, smear the blood on the crystal lens, fight against the nausea caused by seeing two planes at once, and simultaneously thrust their hands into the mystical brazier.

Their sight clears, and each is standing spread about an immense, circular stone platform, having apparently been decanted from one of several burning pyres arrayed about its circumference. Behind them, surrounding the platform, are sheer vertical walls of swirling soul-stuff. In the center of the platform, a tremendous, glowing blue pool lit by its own pyres must be Karzoug’s runewell. Centered is a massive, gold-bound purple gem, pulsing with light and, above that power focus, the Claimer himself.

The exact instant of their appearance was apparently a surprise to each. Though each side has had time to prepare, when their feet hit the floor, the Saviors of Sandpoint react moments faster than the lord of Greed. Haggor and Taeva fly into the air, held aloft by Balekh’s magics to surround the mage while the others throw arrows and spells. Weathering the barrage, the runelord gestures and time seems to crawl.

In what seems only a second to the heroes, Karzoug is now standing in two places: his original location and across the platform. Deadly mist, grasping black tentacles, and viscous grease have appeared at the feet of the land-bound heroes. Unfortunately for Karzoug, this is where it all starts to go wrong. Balekh’s vast array of spells has virtually immunized the entire group to such effects (perhaps, Karzoug thinks, in ways that they shouldn’t have for a caster more firmly tied to normal spell theory). Shayliss saves the killing cloud to affect her later, Balekh declares the black tentacles not a threat, and Veshenga is simply to agile to worry about a slippery floor.

Not caring about the obvious image, Taeva and Haggor again charge after the flying tyrant while Veshenga lays into him with arrows and Shayliss flings spells. Balekh waits for the archmage to cast, and, when he does so, unleashes a synchronized ray of the two most destructive spells from each of his spheres of study. Unable to complete his main working, and reeling from the attacks, Karzoug does manage to float back and use his rod to fire off a Wish for healing.

This merely delays the inevitable for a few more seconds. Now in easy grasping range, Haggor frees his full fury in a blinding barrage of blows, pulverizing the primordial prognosticator. Taeva slips forward and calmly detaches a kidney. Then Veshenga ends it with a single arrow into the eye.

As the once-mighty corpse of a man who had styled himself god-king of Shalast dessicates as drifts to the ground, the party is subjected to a blinding light from the crystal at the middle of the chamber. When they can see again, the room is no longer a demi-plane, but lodged at the base of the runelord’s tower. The runewell is frozen over in the frigid cold, its magic dissipated into the aether, and the walls of souls are gone. They take a moment to strip Karzoug’s corpse down to his shirt and then flee the mountaintop as the archmage’s lieutenants descend, returning to their bolt hole with the skulks.

Over the next few days, they watch as Karzoug’s last apprentice and chief priest fight over the remains of the domain, splintering loyalties and losing most of their rune giants, and then sweep in to eliminate the victor. Without their ancient taskmasters, most of the giants break free of the mystically-enforced loyalty and begin the long trek home. Once again, the dead city can become a myth, ruled only by the distant cousins of the Varisians who have no need of its immense wealth.

The party returns home to a society that will never appreciate the true enormity of the evil from which it was just saved, and prepares to celebrate victory.

Pet Peeve: Dual-Axis Stats


I have an irrational dislike of dual-axis stats. By dual-axis, I mean any stat that applies twice to the same task in the game, such that effectiveness at the task basically increases as the square of the stat’s level: level 2 is four times as good as 1, level 3 is nine times, and so on. Ultimately, it feels inelegant to me in most cases, and often even feels like an unforeseen side effect created by the designer. Examples:

  • In Mage: the Ascension, Arete governs both the number of dice you roll to create magical (or magickal, depending on the edition) effects and limits the Spheres you use to create these effects. Arete 1 means you can only roll 1 die and create level 1 effects, Arete 2 means 2 dice and level 2 effects, and so on. The higher your Arete, the more successes you’re going to get on effects that are more powerful and versatile to begin with. It was rare for anyone not to raise their score as high as possible in character creation without intentionally wanting to play a weaker character.
  • In the Dresden Files RPG, a Wizard’s Conviction rating determines how much Mental Stress the caster will take from using Evocation magic, and the size of his or her Mental Stress damage track. Evoking deals Stress equal to the amount your spell’s power exceeded your Conviction. High Conviction also means you can take more and bigger Stress hits. Any player that plans to play a Wizard would, like in Mage, be intentionally playing a weaker character by not buying Conviction as high as possible in character creation.
  • In a non-magic related example, the new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a character’s Toughness rating as both bonus hit points and damage resistance. A character with Toughness 5 will take four fewer wounds per hit than a character with Toughness 1, and will be able to take four more total wounds. In this case, the effect is diluted somewhat by having additional resistance from armor and a large number of base hit points, but a player who expects to be in combat a lot is well advised to buy up Toughness.

As mentioned, my dislike of this effect is largely irrational, when the effect is deliberately created by the designer: sometimes, a system benefits from a stat being made significant by raising on a geometric rather than linear scale. What I don’t like, however, is when this is a hidden element of the system, such that all rules indications make it seem like the dual-axis stat is just as important as stats that raise on a linear progression. In games with such deceptively potent stats, newer players may not focus on the stat, and wind up with a character that’s significantly underpowered relative to the party, while experienced players may feel compelled to max out the stat during character generation even if they’d rather make a more diverse build.

Ultimately, I’d probably be mollified if games with such stats called out the difference in the game’s character creation text. If the stat was raised by a different method than the other stats (possibly even having a locked rating based on character type rather than consuming a variable amount of creation points), that would, in my mind, be a bonus. But, really, no matter how mollified I’d be, I’ll still have that pet peeve in the back of my mind that the system would be more elegant if the stat didn’t have to double-dip into the same rules element.

The Spires of Xin-Shalast, Part 2

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To the Face!

Seeing signs of giants inhabiting the ancient city, the party decides to do reconnaissance before making a direct move for the mountain, which they assume is their ultimate destination. Sneaking into an unoccupied house near the edge of the city, they wait until dark. Without enough magic to protect against the weather, Taeva, Haggor, and Shayliss have a hard time sticking out against the freezing cold, as the party does not wish to make a fire and draw attention. By the time darkness falls early in the evening, the rogue and monk are very happy to start moving.

From Balekh’s divinations earlier, they know that the western edge of the city closest to them has been set up as a tent city for various giants that appear to be engaged in construction projects around the city. Taeva and Veshenga set out and skirt the edge of this city, passing between in at the foreboding fortress that guards the main road through town. Past the giants, they find little sign of life in the southern half of the city. After seeing some of the sights, including a building guarded by what could only be abominable snowmen, Taeva decides to return to camp, as she is feeling the chill profoundly in the open air. Veshenga, protected by magic against the cold, continues on. Shortly thereafter, she sees the glacier to the east give way to a tangle of giant fungi and strange plants running right up to the main road, and the air warms. She figures these are likely benefiting from some kind of volcanic hot spring, and sneaks forward across the main road to cast magic that will let her communicate with the plants. From them, she learns that the tangle runs deep and is deadly to those that venture too deep. The plant, however, does clue her in to the native inhabitants of the city, which it calls Skulks.

As she continues on into a section of the city featuring even more massive construction than the rest, likely the abode of giants, she begins to sense that she is being followed. She hides in an alley and waits, and is soon rewarded by another shadowy, humanoid figure moving after her. After it appears to give up on finding her and turn back, she creeps up on it and grabs ahold. The flabby creature struggles then gives up, and once Veshenga introduces herself and promises not to harm him, he introduces himself as Morgiv, indeed one of the denizens of the city called Skulks. However, on getting a better look at him, Veshenga recognizes a similarity in appearance and language to the strange man that makes her feel that he is, if anything, from an aeons-lost tribe of Varisians. These individuals, who Morgiv calls “Providers” must have adapted to the city over the last ten-thousand years. He seems happy to see adventurers that want to defeat the “god-king” and make the city once again safe for his people to roam, as they have retreated into their glacial tunnels.

Meanwhile, Haggor is exploring exactly these tunnels. He found that the glacier only goes so deep, and conceals an ancient lava flow that must have wiped out half of the city during the fall of Thassilon. He passes warning glyphs without knowing what they are warning against, and then quickly finds that they indicate sections of tunnels still swarming with the angry dead from fallen Xin-Shalast. Fortunately, Haggor has been preparing his magical gear precisely to handle the undead, and after he bodily tears several wraiths and spectres apart, they begin to leave him alone. He further explores the tunnels, finding evidence of inhabited sections guarded by pairs of humanoids (who he will later learn are the same Skulks as Morgiv). He remains hidden and doesn’t bother them, instead exploring the rest of the dangerous tunnels and then heading back to camp.

He arrives at about the same time as Veshenga and Morgiv, and introductions are made with Veshenga translating the Skulk’s strange patois of Thassilonian and Varisian for the rest of the group. The creature tells them that he can easily lead them to a secret way atop the mountain to Karzoug’s seat of power, but that the mountain is protected by a powerful obscuring field that none can penetrate without the right magics. He indicates that the Sihedron rings that three of them wear, gathered from various lieutenants and dungeons of Greed, are the required tokens. However, they do not have enough for everyone. According to Morgiv, most of the emissaries that dwell on the mountain have the rings, and they could be assaulted when they leave the mountain, but they usually do so in great numbers. The only denizens of the lower city that he believes have the rings are a dragon and a demon that are tentatively allied with Karzoug. The party, after some deliberation, believes that these will be the targets whose defeat will be least likely to immediately raise alarms.

Sneaking into the tunnels with Morgiv, he provides them a safe area nearer the north of the city to rest during the day. The next evening, they enter an ancient coliseum shaped as a Sihedron star where they are told the “demon” lives. After bypassing a number of traps and minor threats, they come upon the being’s dwelling in one of the boxes for nobles of the city. Instead of a demon, they find that he is instead an Ice Devil, guarded by two Bone Devils, and is prepared for them. Negotiations very quickly fail. Amidst ice storms and walls of ice, the party batters through the guardian devils and charges the lead devil, who teleports away, realizing he is outmatched, after threatening to remember their faces. Balekh immediately follows him with a scrying and teleport, emerging only seconds behind him. The party finishes the being off to realize that they are still inside the city in an abandoned house on the mountain not far away. They dimension door back to the creature’s lair and gather up its ring and various other treasure before heading back to the tunnels.

The next night, they sneak into an ancient tax collector’s treasury, emerging on the lair of an ancient blue dragon. Negotiations go longer than with the devil, but the dragon is not at all swayed by their suggestion that the world would be better off without Karzoug, instead deigning to lecture to them about the grandeur of the renewed Thassilonian Empire that is soon to commence. Deciding that they are unlikely to win this particular argument, the party attacks. The dragon unleashes lightning and phantasmal duplicates, nearly crushing Veshenga and dealing terrible wounds to Haggor and Taeva. However, like most of the party’s foes without time to prepare or room to maneuver, the fight is over quickly and decisively. As Haggor stashes the creature’s neatly organized hoard into their portable hole, Taeva skins the beast (Haggor insists that the skin go in a bag of holding that will not result in it rotting on top of the rest of the treasure).

With sufficient rings on hands, the next evening the party takes Morgiv’s secret route up the mountain, dispatching a guardian roper on the way. Reaching the top with the aid of the rings, they find a nearly abandoned set of buildings, with signs of life only in the immense tower that soars nearly half a mile high, nearly to the face on the mountain itself. After scouting the main route into the tower, Balekh finds that it is heavily guarded by giants. Instead, they decide to enter via a hole near the top of the tower, at it at least appears to not be immediately guarded and to allow them some control over the terrain. The party flies up and enters the small (by giant standards) side room. Just as they’re getting their bearings, an emanation of Karzoug appears in the room, spectral as he forces his way into this dimension. He asks them once more if they will set aside their foolish quest to defeat him and nods sadly when they once again reply with only impudent remarks and insults.

The vision fades and the party begins to prepare for battle, assuming that the alarm has been raised. Sure enough, less than a minute later sounds of armored foes are heard rushing down the hallway. As Haggor throws open the door to attack the threat, he finds three foes. The first is, though enlarged and covered in massive armor, by her sword and face clearly Viorian Dekanti, the pirate queen from Riddleport last seen driven mad by the sword of the champion of Greed. Flanking her are two immense giants, covered in runes, that appear to be the evolved form the creature that emerged from the cauldron in the Therassic Monastery. The battle is furious, with Karzoug’s champion and the giants cutting into Haggor again and again with thunderous blows. However, Balekh is on hand with healing magics and the rest of the party is giving better than Haggor is taking. Viorian is pummeled, disarmed, tripped, and stabbed with a bleeding wound, rolling away to try to save herself only to be finished off by Veshenga. The first giant fires a massive shower of mystical sparks from its runes before it falls, and the second tears into the party before it, too, falls to a focused assault.

However, as the last giant falls, the party has only a moment to breathe, as the next wave of foes is howling down the hallway. Forming up for the new threat, they see a quartet of giant-sized, armored women with the lower bodies of lions. They are clearly another kind of Lamia, and Balekh wastes no time trying to thin them out with a synthesized spell of holy fire and arcane lightning before fleeing around the corner. The creatures respond with twin columns of holy fire of their own and a wall of gnashing blades. However, most of the front line easily avoids these spells (though Balekh takes nearly as much punishment as he dealt), and charges forward to destroy the beasts. Haggor smashes two into the walls to make room for the rest of the party to unload a barrage of arrows and spells down the hallway at their sisters. As they fall, everything becomes momentarily quiet. Apparently, there were no other tower guardians immediately nearby.

The party takes the reprieve to recover, loot the bodies, and explore. They find an immense throne room, dwellings for dozens of giants, and, most importantly, an ornamental sepulcher for Karzoug that faces a very ornamental emerald and gold lens illuminated by a magical brazier. Suspecting that they’ve found the way into Karzoug’s sanctum, they consult the divinatory quill they found in the Scribbler’s lair and determine how to enter the domain. Balekh uses the last of his spells to wall off and arcane lock the entrances to the room, and they all hope that it will be enough to allow them to grab enough rest to assault the Runelord fresh. This proves to be a good plan, as they have just finished their morning studies when they hear pounding begin on the newly created walls. They steel themselves and prepare to face their ultimate battle.

Default Narrative

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I was thinking the other day about the overwhelming popularity of D&D as opposed to all other tabletop RPGs. Outside groups of players that specifically won’t play it at all, D&D is the default game. The more concurrent RPGs a particular gamer is involved in, the more likely at least one of them will be D&D. At least in my experience, in any given group of gamers, D&D is simply a much easier sell than any other game on the market. “I’m running a D&D game,” requires far less explanation or coercion than the other options. Why?

I think the answer is, in large part, due to the default narrative of D&D: a group of adventure-seekers enters lairs full of fantastic beasts, kills them, and takes their stuff. While many joke about this component of the game, it’s incredibly effective in a number of ways:

  • It’s scalable: A scenario can be as small as Orc and Pie or as big as World’s Largest Dungeon. Each room can be smooth walled and populated only by monsters or intricate and full of traps, riddles, and portents. Motivation can be simple naked greed or involved backstory. The premise stretches easily to work with as much or as little as the GM, players, and game time will allow.
  • It automatically provides conflict: There are creatures and traps. They are in between the players and their goal. They must be bypassed; by combat, skill, trickery, or even diplomacy if so required. The very nature of the setup creates interest and action.
  • It’s systematized: If a GM is not feeling particularly creative when planning the adventure, it’s still ridiculously easy to make a dungeon. Draw out rooms and passages. Pull appropriate, pre-made creatures and other threats according to specific guidelines. Have fun. It may not be the most emotionally deep experience of your players’ roleplaying lives, but it will be a game.
  • It encourages the players to be proactive: Adventurers in D&D find holes in the ground, fight what’s inside, and take out the rewards. If a group is feeling adrift in the plot, in a standard game of D&D, all they really have to do is figure out how to get into a dungeon and things become remarkably clearer.
  • It’s predictable: For all the reasons above, a D&D group knows, at least within a ballpark, what kind of game they’re likely to get, even assuming no prior experience with one another. There are GMs that run dungeon crawls better than others, but within the standard range of GMing skills, the difference between a bad dungeon crawl and a good one is an order of magnitude smaller than the range between, for example, a bad mystery game and a good one, or a bad horror game and a good one. If the GM and players can trust one another to not deliberately try to ruin everyone else’s experience, it’s pretty easy to create fun.

Obviously, D&D can be a lot more than dungeon crawls. Should be, even. But that’s the default narrative, and it’s a rare D&D game that doesn’t send the PCs regularly into interlinking collections of roomlike spaces to fight or otherwise bypass fantastic creatures.

The interesting thing is that no game that I’m familiar with, mainstream or indie, has a similarly defined default narrative (unless they are also fantasy adventure games of a similar vein to D&D). Many of the indie games I’ve played come much closer than mainstream games, but I don’t know that any of them are there yet. Any game that’s heavily reliant on the GM to craft a plot from a huge variety of possibilities has created a game that’s potentially way more work for the GM and way less predictably enjoyable for prospective players. I’ll run a D&D game with no real ideas and I’ll play one with no real concept of the GM’s skill in a way I simply won’t for literally any other game system.

And I think that’s because there’s no other game system that provides a scalable, systematized, predictable default narrative rife with conflict and opportunities for player-directed action. D&D has an easy answer for what to do if you’re stumped for fun, and, despite well over three decades of attempts to improve on the original, I’m not aware of any game that’s created anything really comparable. I’m not sure why.