What the-?!

  • Why the change from 8 miniatures to 5 miniatures per booster? When we set out to re-imagine the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures line, our goals included increasing the quality of the product, dealing with the rising costs associated with producing the line, and optimizing the product as a D&D Roleplaying Game accessory. To that end, we are providing fewer figures per Monster Manual-themed booster, but these figures are of a higher quality. In effect, each booster contains two rare-quality figures (the visible Large figure and the randomized rare figure).

Ok, I understand that Hasbro just killed off the Skirmish game entirely…it wasn’t making money, so take it out behind the barn and shoot it.  But what leaves me absolutely gobsmacked is having just eliminated the entire market for the collectible aspect, why do they still package the damn things as if they’re collectible?  Rare-quality, shmare-quality.  For a role-player rare = inconvenient. Nobody’s going to be impressed that the Beholder they’re facing is a rare.  They’re going to be even less impressed when it’s represented, as usual, by a rubber ball because nobody in their right mind is going to buy 6 packs at $15 each to come up with one.  They just about doubled the price and you still won’t be able to just buy the damned minis you need for the particular adventure you plan to run.

I admit that I’m not their target market*, as I have no plans of running 4e ever, but I read Scott Rouse’s explanation and I have to wonder whether they actually have a target market in mind?  Or do they really think they can just create one by carving the bits they liked out of the failing market (lust for rares and completism…each set is smaller so it’s easier to get them all!) and graft it onto their new customers?  What I’d really like to hear explained is why having considered just making them all visible, as the manufacturers of metal miniatures do, they elected to go with the semi-hidden plus bonus rules making all the old gibes about WotC breaking D&D into a collectible card-game of rules a la Magic finally come true.  Except I’m afraid I know the answer.

* though given how many little toys and things I buy to use as minis in our games, I actually could be…I’ve just never considered getting any D&D figures precisely because of the random aspect.

Fluid Combat Rounds Rules

  • Szilard posted an insanely complicated set of D&D 3.0 rules for a less turn-based approach to combat.

I can’t imagine actually using those rules (even if they weren’t D&D 3.0 oriented), but it did make me ponder whether there was some way to do the bookkeeping for them that would make it less cumbersome.  The answer is not that I could see (too many fiddly bits), but it gave me an idea so cunning you could put whiskers on it and call it a weasel…

Countless Moments

Each action is represented by a tile (a piece of cardboard or similar) that is 1 unit wide and a number of units long = how many moments the action takes up.  E.g.

  • Take a 5′ step forward or to the side: 1 unit.
  • Do nothing: 1 unit
  • Strike: 3 units
  • Cast a Spell: 5 units
  • Dive For Cover: 2 units
  • Step Back: 2 Units
  • Drop Prone: 1 unit
  • Stand from Prone: 1 unit
  • Run at double-pace: 5 units
  • Effects with duration (e.g. spells): N units (e.g. number of units determined by duration and scale, e.g.  a spell that lasted 3 turns would be 18 units if the scale was 6 moments to the turn).  These get their own tracks (one per effect), since they run in parallel with any other actions the characters take.
  • Bookkeeping (anything that the game rules require checking at the end of a “turn”, such as bleeding out, recovering endurance): N units, where N is the number of moments determined by the scale.  Again, this gets its own track (hopefully there’s only one…)

and so forth.  The GM would have a supply of 1 unit tiles to mark off moments.  Each player plays their intended actions by stacking their tiles one after another; they may be placed at any time at the end of the player’s current series of tiles.

Each moment the GM plays another 1 unit tile next to the players lines of tiles, and the actions that end in that moment are resolved.  Ties are resolved in initiative order (however that’s decided for the game…by Dex, by Init Bonus, by rolling). Past tiles are removed for recycling and the whole series can be slid backwards to make more room at the end.  There is no demarcation of turns, you just keep adding tiles to the end of the sequence and advancing until the combat is resolved.


Any time before the action a tile represents is resolved, you may remove that tile (and any following tiles) and replace it with a new one, but the new one begins no earlier than the current moment–not when the original tile began.  Fill with Do Nothing actions if needed to keep the sequence in sync.  Since the point of  continuous action resolution instead of turn-based is to allow the players to react to events as they unfold, the GM should generally let the players fiddle with their upcoming actions freely; still, if it threatens to bog down the game (particularly if the players start getting involved in lengthy discussions of optimal sequencing) the GM should feel free to move things along by playing new moment tiles and resolving actions–if they player doesn’t currently have an action in the sequence treat that as Do Nothing, representing the player dithering.  You might also experiment with allowing the players to play as many new tiles as they want at the start of combat and when one of their actions has just completed, but only play a single tile followed by a mandatory Do Nothing tile after an Abort to represent the cost of changing your mind all the time.


For converting durations, you have to pick a scale.  Generally you should make it so that a series of steps adds up to a normal move, e.g. 12 moments = 1 turn if characters can normally move 60′ a turn.  If you can usually move 1/2 move and attack, then an attack would be 6 units instead of 3, etc.

I don’t think I’m actually going to try this with any of our current games; it doesn’t really fit with Savage Worlds’ initiative and multi-action rules that well, and I don’t have any strong objections to the way turns play out in SW, but if anyone wants to give it a try I’d love to hear about it.

In Praise of Randomization

Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action. – Ian Fleming

Here’s two things about human beings:

  1. They are incredibly bad at randomizing
  2. They are incredibly good at recognizing patterns

The implication of the combination of these facts is that if you’re GMing a game and you think you’re introducing something that has no correlation with what’s gone before you’re probably wrong, and your players will probably notice.  In fact, even if you’re right, your players may well think there’s a correlation.

There are times when you can take advantage of this, and bask in the appreciation of your players who think you planned something diabolically intricate sessions in advance when actually they just constructed the pattern on the fly, but a lot of the time it can be a problem.  For one thing, it can make the players suspicious and paranoid.  Since a significant part of the game world always is out to get them, there’s usually plenty of fodder for this.  Paranoid players can turtle, or turn away (or turn on) NPCs that would otherwise be able to offer them resources and support that they’re going to need against the real threats, and they can slow the game to a crawl (such as when they examine and re-examine every ten feet of a corridor).  Unintended or spurious patterns can also lead the players on wild goose chases, pursuing lines of enquiry that you know are a dead end but are hard to block off without going meta–especially since it can be impossible for the players to distinguish between the world not containing the clues they’re looking for and an in-game adversary covering his tracks.  Sometimes the dog doesn’t bark in the night because there is no dog.

That’s where using genuine sources of randomness such dice come in.  E.g., if you have and regularly use random encounter tables to make your world seem alive and bustling, then you have much less risk that the players will conclude they’re being spied on by beggars just because beggars are a bit of local color that always seems to pop into your mind when you’re improvising.  They might still be inclined that way because of a series of unfortunate dice rolls…but if the players know you’re rolling randomly on tables, they’re much more likely to take it the way a real inhabitant of the world would: coincidence, not enemy action.  The tables are important so that you’re just using the randomizer to pick from a distribution that makes sense for the setting; you’re not trying to thwart all pattern in the setting, you’re trying to emphasize the true patterns and mitigate the purely coincidental ones.  The key to remember is that the players have hardly any interactions with the world (including simple descriptions of what they perceive) compared to the characters, so they tend to grossly overestimate the representativeness of the interactions they do have.

Finally, no discussion of randomization in RPGs would be complete without touching on random character generation.  While it’s probably obvious that random character generation, just like randomizing on encounter tables, increases the representativeness of the characters as part of the population, it’s not as clear that’s desirable.  After all, a character picked at random from the population of the setting may not have a single adventure during his or her entire life (and probably likes it that way).  For a long time I was strongly against random character generation.  Not only should players be able to play what they want, but the very fact that they’re expected to go on an adventure (barring certain kinds of everyday-people-thrust-into-peril scenarios where I tended to hand out pregens anyway) ought to be a strong enough filter to justify deterministic character generation.

I’m much less dogmatic about it now, in part because I’ve been a player for the past seven years in a campaign where the GM insists on rolling the six D&D stats in order 3d6 each, no swapping or adjusting (not even racial adjustments or 2-for-1 prime requisite adjustments, so actually more strict than Basic D&D), and I’ve come to appreciate two features of random chargen even without the fun and complication of a lifepath system.  First of all, it really does make you play characters that you wouldn’t consider otherwise and that can make things fresher and present an added challenge.  You might not want to get too attached to that 5 Dex fighter, but while he lasts it really can be fun trying to make the most of him.  Second, it makes being particularly good at something rare, worth treasuring, and a genuine stand-out in the setting.  Mechanically, an 18 STR is the same in a 3d6 in order as in a 4d6 drop low and arrange, but in one you really are the strongest person you are likely to meet in the campaign, in the other you’re maybe one-in-ten Fighters (unless they’ve gone the Dex route), one-in-three who’s 17+.  Random chargen is still not my default preference, but it definitely has its plusses.

Hasbro Announces Will Stop Selling Pigs in a Poke; Customers Pathetically Grateful

    • Yesterday, Wizards has made an announcement that in Spring 2009, they will be releasing two new lines of miniatures; D&D Heroes and Dangerous Delves.

      D&D Heroes will be a non-randomized miniature set featuring miniatures for the classes and races from the PHB and PHB II. The first of the series will have 6 packs (2 for Martial & Arcane heroes and 1 for Divine & Primal).

I mean, I’m glad for the D&D 4e players that they actually have some hope of getting at least the minis that they need to represent the PCs, but coupling the end of an evil policy with a price increase is hardly grounds for the hosannas echoing across the RPG blogosphere.  Of course, as Art Asylum’s Minimates prove, just because you always know what’s in the pack doesn’t mean you won’t end up with a bunch of figures you don’t want just to get the one that you do.  Take it from someone who has more versions of Wolverine than he could possibly want.

What no Rambling Bumbler can resist

What’s the worst that could happen?

My players are congenitally unable to resist this kind of thing.  After one campaign where they destroyed the universe by shooting the doomsday machine before the villain could finish explaining that shooting it would doom them all, I’ve taken the precaution of removing all self-destruct mechanisms and other single points of failure from every subsequent setting.  And they still go searching for them…

Special Purpose Wikis

I’m a fan of wikis for organizing and letting you search for game information. I’ve got the main Haunted Realm campaign wiki running on my website using MediaWiki, but that’s for public consumption; I still need a place for working on all my campaign notes that the players aren’t supposed to see.  I’ve mentioned TiddlyWiki before, a lovely little all-in-one-page portable wiki suitable for sticking on a thumb drive, but now Uncle Bear has two nice enhanced versions specifically for campaign notes and world design: TenFootWiki and WorldBuilding 101. Quite spiffy.

The Mythic Game Master Emulator

The Mythic Game Master Emulator is pretty good for solitaire play; it’s actually more ambitious than just random dungeon stuff, it’s meant to allow you to use charts to randomly determine much more open-ended adventures. There’s a demo pdf that lacks the main chart, so you can’t actually take it for a test drive, but it does give enough explanation (I think) to get a sense of how it all fits together. Basically it gives a structure for asking yes/no questions and resolving whether it’s a strong no, no, yes, strong yes depending on the odds and how “chaotic” the scenario has become and whether a random event has occurred and if so what sort and whether it interrupts the logical flow of the scenario. A random event isn’t just a wandering monster but something like: Move toward a plot thread, Action: Expose, Subject: Jealousy, and then the player has to interpret what that means in the context of the adventure so far. If nothing suggests itself, it’s just dropped.

It’s surprisingly easy and satisfying, particularly for strongly structured stories like exploring a dungeon (possibly supplemented with random monster and treasure charts for determining things like what precisely is lurking in the cavern that the Orcs won’t enter) or perhaps a manor-house murder mystery…it takes a bit more practice and comfort with taking a “director stance” approach to at least some of the play for a really open-ended story, but it’s really good at keeping you from knowing everything that’s going to happen in advance on the one hand and having the adventure feel completely random and undirected on the other. Even though once you grasp the system, it really boils down to about 2 pages of charts (out of 54 pages), besides explaining the system the remaining pages do have a lot of helpful examples and advice about how to use it and how not to “cheat”… I found it well worth the $7.

I haven’t yet tried to use it for play with other players, and I’m not sure I will…though I can imagine keeping the chart around as a source of inspiration if the players hare off in a direction I wasn’t expecting and nothing immediate comes to mind.

Tolkien Not Spoken Here

I’ve just decided that in my new setting, the Haunted Realm, I’m not going to have either Orcs or Hobbits (or even “Halflings”). Probably no great surprise to my players, but I had mentioned Orcs as being one of the Invader races and I’ve thought the better of it.  The grunts of the invading army will now be Trolls, Kobolds, and possibly Red Caps (which were native to Faery but threw their lot in with the invaders).

It’s already been established that Elves are more like those of fairy tales, native to Faery and not to the Bright Kingdoms themselves, though they mingled freely with them before the Plague.  Dwarves, well Dwarves are Dwarves the world around…  No, really, I’ve tried running settings without Dwarves before and my players just took the race that was most similar to Dwarves and turned them into Dwarves, albeit ones with darker complexions and a propensity for living above-ground.

Is there are reason for this de-Tolkienization?  Not a strong one.  Unlike some of my prior settings, I’m not trying to make it feel really exotic or subvert the fantasy cliches.  In this case I want it to seem familiar, if somewhat spooky.  And Orcs just somehow don’t have quite the right vibe.  Or maybe it’s that the LEGO minifigs I have are of Trolls…

Desirable Generic RPG Qualities

Here’s a blast from the past, something I wrote ten years ago on what I was looking for in a generic RPG system.  I still agree with a good bit of it, though some of it I’m less certain about, and about one particular issue I think I was just wrong.

Subject: Desirable Generic RPG Qualities

Date: 1998/09/22

Based on some of the recent discussion, here are some of my thoughts on qualities that I would like in generic RPG rules, broken down into the categories:

  • Character Generation
  • Character Advancement
  • Task Resolution

Desirable Qualities by Category

Character Generation


It should be possible to go from a description of what the character is capable of to a codification of the character in game terms, without the system requiring modifications to the character to fit certain genres, power levels or preconceptions of the game designer as to what combinations/levels of ability/backgrounds are permissible. It should be possible to describe the character as it is now, without having to reconstruct the development or career path of the character up to this point (if you want to that’s a different story entirely).


Should have few, if any, subtle emergent properties. The obvious way to build a character should be just as useful/efficient as a more complex way. Character building expertise, rather than character description, shouldn’t be rewarded.

Utility priced

In a point-build system, prices should be based on relative utility of a power/level of skill/attribute, not based on rarity. Thus total points should represent how effective the character will be in the setting, not how unusual (although it’s reasonable to increase the price if rarity itself increases the utility, e.g. possession of psychic powers in a setting where nobody else knows they exist).


Levels of ability should have specific measures, so that it is possible to work backwards from real-world descriptions to ability levels. E.g. if you know that you want the character to be as strong as a weightlifter, and that a weightlifter can lift 1000 lbs, then it should be possible to work out in game terms what STR is required to lift 1000 lbs.


The system should be capable of making fine distinctions between similar skills/attributes/powers, without requiring them where unnecessary. E.g. it should be possible to build a character who is particularly good at endurance sports, without being particularly resistant to disease, without requiring every character to separately determine how good they are at endurance tasks and disease resistance.

Wide Ranged

The system should be able to handle a wide range of power levels and genres without breaking, even when the power levels are mixed in a single setting, and without rendering characters’ abilities at one end of the scale indistinguishable from each other or irrelevant.


(possibly w/optional random generation, but if so random generation should only come up with characters that are legal under deterministic generation)


The process of building a basic character should be short enough that you don’t have to cut corners to create an average (or even skilled) NPC, and require little math or extensive consultations of the rules. A spread-sheet or character generation program should be sheer overkill.

Character advancement


There should be a way to improve characters over the course of play

Preservative of niches

The system should preserve the relative rank order of specific abilities among characters, presuming equal initial talent and equal attention to advancement. I.e. if one character starts out more stealthy than another, or a better shot, it shouldn’t be possible for the less skilled character to overtake the more skilled one by accumulating equal experience, unless the more skilled one neglects to advance that skill, or was deliberately bought as less naturally talented at it.

Insensitive to timing

The system shouldn’t distinguish between character that have advanced through experience and characters that are simply created as being more experienced. Order that abilities are acquired/improved shouldn’t make a difference to outcome (possible exeption: abilities that improve the learning of new abilities).

Equivalent to training

Although for some fields, experience attainable through the school of hard knocks ought to translate to experience from adventuring, for many abilities non-adventuring time spent training or on the job ought to be treated equivalently, and the system should provide for it. E.g. it should be perfectly possible to design a bright NPC high-school student, calculate how much experience she would get from attending college, entering graduate school, completing her PhD, and spending twenty years as a professor, apply it to the character, and arrive at an expert in the field. (It should also be possible to simply buy an NPC as that in the first place, but that’s an issue for character generation.)

Task Resolution

Adjustable level of detail

Ideally it should be possible to fill out interpretations of rules results to as much detail as is desirable, while not requiring that you generate more detail than you want at the moment. For instance, when determining hit location the rules should allow for anywhere from straight success/failure down to “you hit his left index finger” depending upon circumstances.


Gives results that can be interpreted in quantitative game-world terms. E.g. an attempt to throw an object as far as you can should return results that can be interpreted as a specific distance (whether it’s 1 meter, 1 kilometer, or 1 light-year), not “that was really far, but just short of extremely far”.


gives reasonable results at all power levels and combinations of power levels handles unlikely cases as well as likely ones.

Easy to extrapolate

‘Nuff said


It should be easy to intuit the probabilities of any simple course of action, given familiarity with the game system. (I.e. the player shouldn’t have to be an expert mathematician, or perform an elaborate calculation, in order to get a good sense of the chances of success that a character ought to be able to tell at a glance, such as whether a particular ditch can be easily jumped.) The system should have few, if any, strongly counter-intuitive properties (such as novices being just as good at defense as experts), and any such should be clearly labeled and justified.


Shouldn’t involve more math than the players can easily do in their heads, shouldn’t involve looking up rules except for the occasional truly obscure case (which ought to be easily interpolated from known cases anyway), shouldn’t take a long time even when doing simple math (e.g. adding 20d6 is, to my taste, too much)

Unified mechanic

To such an extent as is possible. Since different types of tasks sometimes require different levels of detail (even if the requirement is merely the desire of the players to have more detail), there may well be a limit to just how unified the mechanics can be and still satisfy.

Fluffy Crunch and Crunchy Fluff

Matthew Conway recently wrote Fluff and Crunch Are Dead To Me, about how he’s grown to hate the terms, but I see them as getting at something.  To me, anyway, Crunch is all the mechanics of the game: you roll this, and subtract that number from this other thing, if the result is 0 or less, the creature is dead, and so forth.  Fluff is all the stuff that doesn’t touch the mechanics at all, and could be freely swapped with any other fluff without changing the in-game result.  To take a concrete example, if you know the HERO game system:  that an attack is 6d6 Energy Blast, Armor-Piercing, 1/2 End Cost, Activate 14- is all Crunch.  It tells you everything mechanical you need to know to resolve the attack, and absolutely nothing at all about what the attack is or how it appears to the characters.   The fact that it’s a bolt of flame, or darting daggers of ice, or even a pack of pink bunnies that materialize, savage the target, and disappear is pure Fluff, flavor without any substance.

Now, neatly separating things into Crunch and Fluff is a huge convenience to the game designers, who can on the one hand say “Hey, I don’t need to write any special rules for Ice Daggers versus Fireballs, an Energy Blast is an Energy Blast is an Energy Blast…take some advantages or limitations if you want it to have a different mechanical effect”  and on the other can say “Here’s an adventure you can use for any system whatsoever, just plug in your favorite mechanics and go.” It’s also a convenience for the player and GM insofar as it makes the rules streamlined and elegant and lets them use this or that material with their favorite system.

But… it’s not a pure win… at least for players who are interested in having the rules closely track the game description and story.  See, unless you’re approaching it as a board-game, almost everything that actually interests the players is at the level of description.  What they want to do is toss their Fireball at the bad-guy and see the fur fly (or singe); rolling the 6d6 and subtracting the target’s Energy Defense divided by 2 while ticking off 3 endurance spent is just a means to the end, and the end is telling them what happens next when they throw that fireball.  But when the game designer has severed the link between mechanics and description, which is what designating them as crunch and fluff is mostly about, that can make the interface…mushy and undefined.  In extreme cases (cough 4e cough) the player can lose the sense that they know what’s actually happening in the game world to cause the mechanical effect, or worse know that the description is just “flavor text” and ought to be ignored lest it give you the wrong impression of what ought to be possible in the game world.  A clean separation of crunch and fluff makes it impossible to reason from the level of description.

So what players often would prefer…you’re way ahead of me here, I’m sure…is a less clean separation, what I call “fluffy crunch” and “crunchy fluff.”   Fluffy Crunch would consist of making every bit of crunch have a visible, comprehensible description-level corresponding bit of fluff.  You don’t just Soak a wound, you desperately twist out of the way so that it just grazes you.

Crunchy Fluff is making sure all the description-level stuff gets reflected appropriately in the mechanics:  If your super-power lets you created Ice Daggers out of nothing, you darned well should be able to create one and use it to cool your drink, or ice-down a twisted ankle.   No saying the rules don’t support that that just because the crunch description doesn’t allocate a +1/256th advantage “Can be used to cool physical objects in a non-violent fashion.”  Your ice daggers might get a bonus (or a minus) versus fiery creatures, or be easier to generate in artic conditions and harder in the middle of the Sahara, but in any case shouldn’t be indistinguishable from your companion’s Laser Pistol.

Crunchy Fluff also comes about from making the mechanics support the details of the setting.  If vampires in your setting are unable to enter a dwelling without an invitation, it helps to support that with actual mechanics: is it an absolute prohibition?  Can a sufficiently powerful vampire overcome it?  If so, how?  A Will roll?  Or is it something that the vampire can do, but it will have consequences.  Will it take damage for every turn it remains uninvited?  Can an invitation be revoked?  If it can, can the occupant just say the words, or does the occupant have to engage in some kind of test of wills?  This kind of tuning the rules to reinforce the description of the setting is an important way of making it feel like the setting has “heft”…that the adventure that the players are on couldn’t just be “re-skinned” (to use a computer gaming phrase) with the vampires being replaced with killer androids or cattle rustlers and nothing else but the fluff changing.

If you try to write something as pure Fluff, that can be applied to any setting, those are the kinds of things that can come back to bite you, no pun intended.  If the adventure assumes that vampires can’t enter a dwelling without an invitation period, but the system mechanics say that any sufficiently powerful vampire can…and the adventure has a vampire that’s supposed to be one of the most powerful in the world….

In any case the rules should be used to support the description that’s the heart of play.  Fluffy Crunch is there to give the mechanics a reason and a description; a neat mechanic is not self-justifying, even if it does give the player something extra to think about in terms of winning the board game.  Crunchy Fluff makes the descriptive level of play have consequences as well as consistency.  Both are important to a satisfying RPG, and IMO both are preferable to designs where one is divorced from the other.