D&D 5e’s art and design is not all bad

I don’t like the presentation of D&D 5e. I particularly don’t like the art. If you’ve read There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel, this may not surprise you. But I can see its properties support the aims and desires of the creators and their audiences.

The key challenge for 5e is appealling to a very wide audience. It’s going for the broadest possible market share, and has a wide range of player groups who consider it “their game”. It’s not a niche-niche game, at least not compared to LotFP or Vampire or Burning Wheel.

And of course its owners want to get money out of it, or at least to maintain brand value that they can use elsewhere. And the fan base has diverse interests and values

First, some simple good things that are compatible with the aesthetic I’m describing:

  • Diverse ethnic and gender representation
    • (e.g. they represent “human” by a black woman who looks tough and is not sexualised)
  • The organisation of the text, the typography, and the graphic design are all very clear.
  • Their way of describing rules is very precise and consistent. It’s too precise, and too detailed for my liking, but there are advantages to pedantic precision.

Then, some things incompatible with my aesthetic, but that have other benefits:

  • Colourful, attracts the eye
  • Generally controlled and competent — doesn’t ever look very clumsy
  • Consistent with what a lot of people like – cf many video games, comics, and their associated fan art
  • Implies a fairly wide range of possible settings, in both environment and costume
    • (this is common to most generic system, and I find it off-putting — FATE and Hero Quest have the same problem)
  • Inoffensive to the vast majority of people [1]
  • Broadly suitable for children, even in the eyes of fairly censorious parents.
    • (And most adult owners will be happy for their children, of any age, to flick through it. So it can go anywhere in the house)
  • Not upsettingly gory or painful for almost anyone.
    • (Issues around this are killers for a fair few people. And even I, despite my commitment to things with extra tubes, won’t watch e.g. Saw or The Human Centipede.)
  • Possibly the background pattern has some anti-piracy value, making copies harder to print, or at least more expensive [2]

Footnotes

[1] Exception is a certain class of bigot. But I think most of us can live with that.

[2] Though may be a problem for people with limited vision? Though a comment on Stack Exchange suggests probably not.

Some notes on fixing BX D&D

As Patrick Stuart notes, BX D&D is core to the OSR. It has clarity, it has concision, and it is very clearly “D&D”. It has a clear modern presentation in Old School Essentials. Sadly, it has some serious problems. Here are some fixes. Maybe later there will be more.

First, up the amount of gold needed to advance in level is absurd, unless you want advancement to be ponderous. I’ve mostly concerned myself with how to meet that demand, but if you read my articles about it you’ll find links that suggest other solutions. (the comments on those links are often good).

Specifically, look at the intro to Tomb of the Serpent Kings“Treasure amounts are balanced around the idea that 200gp is enough to level a single character”. That’s likely to be my model going forwards.

If you’re not writing adventures for others, I’d suggest you (a) give more than one xp per gp or (b) rescale all the level charts so they give the pace you want.

It’s not clear at all, in OSE or otherwise, how thief skills relate to the (obvious) ability of non-thieves to do those same things. James  V West has about twelve ways to fix that — start reading at http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2019/01/once-again-with-thieves.html.

Requiring “Read Magic” to use scrolls is excessive. Give Read Magic as an unlimited-use ability to all Magic Users — http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2020/03/read-that-magic.html.

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster”

Previously, I talked about Baker’s idea of the “rollercoaster” that is Apocalypse World, whereby “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. I found his description pretty opaque [1], but managed to summarise it as “real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting”.

Mark Diaz Truman has since refined that a bit for me. He says Baker is talking about explicitly narrative momentum, a kind of energy in running game whereby a story is moving forwards. That doesn’t have to mean “following a pre-written story” [2]; it just means creating something that the players recognise as a story. As Mark puts it, it manifests as the “sense of making decisions that close doors and open other doors, of moving toward conflicts and decisions instead of just sitting and talking.”

In most games, the work of maintaining this energy lands on the GM, especially outside combat. PbtA rules, by contrast, often create momentum directly. Mark — “the moves themselves generate momentum. Even when you [trigger] a move and “things go smooth” a good move will generate new information and options that will pull you down the path of the story instead of just succeeding or failing on a test.”

In other words, the rules provide opportunities, building blocks, playing pieces, from which the the MC and players can build a story. And they put on pressure, rule out some things, make other seem natural or inevitable. This is often true even on 10+ (or 12+) results — PC successes can still have messy side effects.

As an example, Mark points to the basic move “Escape” from his Urban Shadows:

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster””

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse

In a previous post, I talked about a claim Vincent Baker made about Apocalypse World in a recent article. Here, I’m going to discuss another one.

In Section 4, Baker claims that PbtA games “collapse gracefully inward”. I.e. forgetting a few rules, unless they are from a small core set (e.g. the conversation structure) will have only minor effect on the game experience.

Questions that come to mind:

  1. Is that true?
  2. Is it more true than for other kinds of games (e.g. those that fall under Baker’s “D&D”, “point-buy”, or “Forge” design approaches? I.e. is this distinctive about AW (and, by extension, PbtA games in general)

I discussed those questions online, and concluded that Baker is right, with some caveats.

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse”

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1 — Momentum and the Rollercoaster

Vincent Baker recently posted an overview of Apocalypse World’s design, consolidating points that have previously been scattered. His main claim seems to be that “PbtA” is a distinctive approach to system design, one that’s particularly well-suited to game prototyping, and that it is so because of particular properties of it that he describes in sections 3–5 of his overview.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the property described in section 3, where he claims that in AW all the “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. This is tricky, because it’s not obvious what it means for something in the real world to “give momentum” to something in a fictional one.

I think he means that real-world things “given momentum” to fictional events when real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting. E.g. rules can take fictional events and generate consequences that are interesting and exciting, that provide pressing dangers, difficult choices, and worrying lose ends.

The opposite here would be real-world actions that take a potentially exciting fictional event and resolves it neatly with no threads left hanging (no serious harm, no-one upset, nothing radically changed).

Insofar as AW’s real-world actions give momentum to the fiction, I guess this it does so by specific design of moves – defining move triggers that are potentially interesting events, and defining move consequences that are interesting and exciting.

As an enabler to that, you need to keep the group’s attention on the fiction, and you need to keep events moving quickly.

The opposite of that would be real-world actions derailling fictional excitement and momentum, e.g. checking multiple places in rulebooks, complex out-of-character planning, or a rules argument.

I think AW achieves attention and speed by:

  • expressing the vast majority of its rules as concise, self-contained moves
  • keeping a fairly strict policy of fiction->(one move)->fiction (rather than fiction->(multiple moves or others mechanical processes)->fiction)

My questions at this point are:

  1. Does Apocalypse World actually achieve this? Do many PbtA games achieve this?
  2. If so, is it for the reasons I list above?

From my reading and play (the latter mostly of Dungeon World, never AW proper), I’m thinking “yes to both”, but I’m interested in any and all other views.

Update 2 March 2020 — I’ve refined my understanding of this, and written a follow-on post.

Some links about fixing Dungeon World

Dungeon World is eight years old now. Its flaws are naked, visible, throbbing. My views on it are very mixed — it’s a good system for largely-improvised high-energy adventure, but there are many things (from the plethora of move triggers to the bland nature of its presentation) that drive me to hot madness. It needs work.

Mechanically, I have worked on understanding it:

Meanwhile, several others have worked to actually improve it. In particular Jeremy Strandberg cannot cease from this labour:

Strandberg has covered various other moves in what look like good ways. Read his whole blog. Put those things down. Read it now. He is your god now.

Finally, see John Harper’s classic article on “Crossing the line”. It’s written for Apocalypse World, but it is True and Correct about Dungeon World, too. And it’s not in Dungeon World’s text.

Caveat on that — you can cross the line and survive. You can make a habit of crossing the line, and your game might still be viable. You might have a good time, and your group might eventually move to Scotland and found a successful anarchist commune. However, crossing the line upsets many people, especially when it’s a sudden jarring insertion into a line-respecting game. Look at the player in Harper’s second example. Imagine their face.