Options_and_House_Rules

Tweaking the Game: Options and House Rules

Tweaking the Game: Options and House Rules

First I want to make clear you in no way need to change the game of D&D. Adjusting the game rules is optional. If you’re a new DM or have a difficult time holding the rules in your head (no judgment, there are a lot) go ahead and stick to the default rules.

Moving Forward!

Here are the official, published Wizards of the Coast options that may affect your worldbuilding.

Backgrounds

This is the number one way to marry your worldbuilding to each PC. Add, alter, and remove background options to align PCs to your game world. Be mindful of custom background features and how they might be over/under powered. You can find guidelines to customizing backgrounds on DMG, 289.

Background Components

  • 1 Feature
  • 2 Skill Proficiencies
  • 2 Language/Tool Proficiencies
  • Equipment Package Related to the Background
 

Downtime Activities

Downtime activities can be a powerful way to emphasize in-game time passing. The downside is most downtime activities take considerable time. You’ll want to slow how fast the threats move in your world to compensate.
 
Downtime activities reinforce options like slow natural healing and gritty realism rests. These time dilating options give characters plenty of time to complete downtime activities.
 
Some options are definitely more potent than others. Consider trimming the list of what options are available by location and by the rules of your world. You can find downtime activity options in the PHB, DMG, and XGE.

Psychological Changes

  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Morale
The core assumption of D&D is heroic fantasy. The player characters are better than average people. At its heart D&D engages power fantasy. And nothing ruins a player’s power fantasy faster than taking that power away.
But, this can be a powerful tool if you’re wanting to run a darker, grittier game. You’ll want to get the players on board with these options before doing the groundwork.
 
You might consider rules system that better focuses on the psychological then D&D.

Feats

Surprise! Feats are an optional rule! You would never know considering how it’s treated in the official D&D publications. It’s the baked-in option and assumed for every game I’ve run across.
 
Consider what feats you want to add, alter, or remove with how it fits in your world. All feats are not created equal. Consider a rogue who has the Dungeon Delver and Observant feats.
  • Advantage on rolls to find secret doors
  • Advantage on saving throws versus traps
  • Resistance to trap damage
  • Travel at normal pace while searching for traps
  • +5 Bonus to passive perception and passive investigation scores
That rogue is going to be a thorn in your side when the party enters a dungeon. The rogue dramatically reduces the impact of dungeon secrets. It may push you towards a combat heavy, meatgrinder combat approach to dungeons.
 
More importantly what’s passive investigation? The idea that pops to my mind is when a bored person (usually a child) starts messing with something as a fidget.

“I’m not really looking for traps on this door, can I use my passive investigation instead?”

Magic Item Availability

The core assumption of Dungeons and Dragons is that magic items are very rare. The most common magic items are consumable like healing potions and spell scrolls. In the DMG the starting equipment doesn’t include a magic item until level five.
 
If you fill your game with magic items the player characters will be more powerful than their level suggests. Powerful magic items may even make some of your challenge’s trivial.
 
Reducing the amount of magic items in your game has much less consequence. Fifth edition continues the assumption that magic items are rare. PCs can’t buy magic swords at the corner store. Fifth edition’s emphasis on flat math downplays the necessity for a PC to have +3 armor at X level.
 
The major challenges of a low magic game:
  • Healing potions for healer-less groups
  • The many monsters resistant to non-magical damage
You’ll need to keep your martial PCs from falling behind in the combat curve. You’ll also want some way to for the PCs heal in combat.
 
Consider a consumable blade oil that can be applied to a weapon or X number of ammunition. The blade oil functions as the Magic Weapon spell.
 
Consider making the Healer feat a function of the healer’s kit. It’s scaling, non-magical healing.

Pro Tip

The Healer feat is WAY more powerful than Cure Wounds and it scales. At 20th level it provides 1d6+24 HP as an action that doesn’t take a spell slot. I’m currently playing a cleric and it is primo. Imagine your cleric using spells for buffing and damage instead of healing.

Rest Alterations

⦁ Epic Heroism
⦁ Gritty Realism
 
Altering the way D&D’s short and long rests work isn’t the worst idea in the world. One of the drawbacks of the 5e rules as written is a short rest is one hour. But any situation the PCs are safe enough to rest for an hour, they’re safe enough to rest for eight hours. This short changes classes that recharge abilities on a short rest.
 
The Epic Heroism has the PCs ready to fight with every conceivable resource every fight. So if you want a game with fewer but more epic set piece battles this works well. But you won’t be able to whittle down the party’s resources over time with small skirmishes.
 
On the other end of the spectrum is the Gritty Realism variant. Non-magical hit points are hard to come by and resting takes a long time. Don’t be surprised when the players are gun shy after a moderate battle. Their abilities, spells, and hit dice are a limited resource. They don’t know when they’ll be able to take an uninterrupted extended rest of one week.
 
Running many, small combat encounters harries the party and makes them feel like they’re always in danger. It will also help your PCs better manage their resources. They’re more likely to rely on cantrips and weapon wielders to pull them through a small fight. Only dipping into spell slots when things turn dire. Fleeing combat is also a more recognizable strategy for the players.

Healing Changes

  • Lingering Injuries
  • Healer’s Kit Dependency
  • Healing Surges
  • Slow Natural Healing
Only one option presented in the DMG is actually helpful to the players. The Healing Surges variant allows PCs to heal themselves in combat.
 
In fourth edition everyone had access to the 5e Fighter’s second wind ability. It wasn’t good healing, but if your cleric was on the other side of the fight and you didn’t have a healing potion… one hit point was better than unconscious.
 
If you plan to run a game where healing magic is rare and reduced natural healing this would be a good option.
 
Healer’s Kit Dependency is a do-nothing option. It only ensures the group will carry at least one healer’s kit per PC. The cost is negligible once the characters have a few levels under their belt. Unless you’re tracking encumbrance at the granular level it has no effect.
 
Slow Natural Healing is a variant that creates a situation where the party wants to take multiple long rests in a row. The big question from a DM point of view is how do you make that entertaining? Extended rests are a good way to promote role play between player characters.
 
In the variant RAW, Lingering Injuries could be devastating to a game. If you roll a lot of crits behind the screen a PC can be easily hamstrung. Lose a hand and the two-handed melee or ranged focused fighter loses functionality. This variant is brutal when piled on top of being KO’d in a combat encounter.
 
As a consideration many conditions in this variant can only be cured by Regenerate, a 7th level spell. That requires a 13th level cleric. If you’re starting a campaign from level one, avoid it. Or you could spend the time to tweak the variant’s conditions to make them more surmountable at low level.

Advanced Technology

  • Firearms
  • Explosives
  • Alien Technology
Don’t add advanced technology to your world, just don’t. The crossbow expert and sharpshooter feats already push power to ranged combat. Don’t introduce even more powerful ranged combat weaponry into that mess.
 
If you’re deadset on adding one of these options consider a different rules system. It will serve you better in the long run.

Custom Content & House Rules

If you’re looking to involve custom content or house rules in your D&D campaign there are a few things to keep in mind.
  1. Give thought to how changes will affect gameplay.
  2. Is Dungeons & Dragons the best rules system for the game you’re trying to create? D&D is built for heroic fantasy games with a heavy emphasis on combat. There may be a different rules system better suited to the type of game you’re trying to make.
  3. Make your players are aware and understand the houserules BEFORE they make characters.
And don’t forget this golden rule:

Limitations over Limitless

I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.”
– Truman Capote

My house rules and variants I’d like to use and why

Language Changes

I’m talking about…
  • No Common
  • Extra Language Profiency for script literacy
  • Custom languages
If you’re going to include Common, I don’t even know why they include languages in RPGs. Also, the implementation of a universal language is silly.
  1. There is no universal language.
  2. Literacy isn’t fundamental. People have to be taught to read and write. PHB, 123 shows what script is used for each language.
  3. You don’t have to search long on the internet to find someone talking about how you should avoid racial monocultures. But we’re supposed to believe that all elves speak the same language? Humans don’t. Language is regional, not racial.

Limited/Custom Backgrounds

Backgrounds are great and they can add a lot to your game. They’re a great way to get player buy-in on your worldbuilding when its married to the PCs right out the gate.
 
I want immediate player buy-in. I want to help my player’s backgrounds to feel grounded in the world.

Always Passive Insight & Perception

Making Insight and Perception a passive defense (like AC or 4e’s saves) helps keep the game flowing.
 
It cuts down on players repeating checks until someone rolls high enough for them to feel certain they aren’t missing anything.

Time Dilation

Different time rules for Dungeon, Travel, Town.

Dungeon

  • Short Rest – 1 hour
  • Long Rest – 8 hours

Travel

  • Short Rest – 8 hours
  • Long Rest – 24 hours

Town

  • Short Rest – 24 hours
  • Long Rest – 1 week
This makes travel more strenuous on the party. They’re less likely to go nova on encounters while traveling or in town.

Downtime Activities

Here’s a quick history lesson, pirates didn’t bury much treasure.
They gained money quickly and spent it just as fast. My assumption is adventurers operate in the same feast or famine mentality. You do a couple adventures, gain a fat purse of coin and live the good life until it runs out.
 
That gives plenty of time for downtime activities and gives the players time to engage with the world and RP with each other.

Travel Alterations

D&D is two thirds combat.
 
For better or worse the system does little to provide mechanics or a framework for the other two tiers of play. As someone who enjoys the outdoors backpacking, canoeing, climbing, and orienteering, it always feels like RPGs are written by people who don’t spend a lot of time outdoors.
 
Exposure and illness are way more likely to kill a traveler than combat. I want to introduce travel and camping duties. I also have a different way of measuring the toll of travel. I’ll explain this in a different blog post.

Resource Die

A less tedious way of doing the book keeping of D&D. I don’t want to hand wave it completely.
 
d10>d8>d6>d4>1>0. It’s useful for tracking
  • Ammunition
  • Food/Water Rations
  • Spell Components
  • Miscellaneous Gear/Items
I’ll dive into this topic more in a different blog post.

Next Time…

I’ll dive into the Worldbuilding Abstract with Gods & Religions.
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City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:

“…the intent behind this book is to provide Game Masters with a resource for making the communities in their worlds more plausible, memorable, and exciting.”
Well it did that… I suppose. And that’s not to say there isn’t some good information in the book, there is. But that information is hindered by its banality, compartmentalization, and its presentation. Some of the sections are so surface level, the information presented so basic, I began to glide over the lines without reading. Like the stonemason entry, for example. There are eight paragraphs describing stonemasons. But truthfully, unless you are really new to the whole RPG, worldbuilding, history, fantasy premise you know what a stonemason is. Even if not, you would probably figure it out from the context. More damning is the stonemason has a one sentence line about quarries, but no mention of what type of stones might be common use.
There are nuggets of important info to be found though. There’s a sentence about the pitch of roof’s depending on climate, more severe to keep snow accumulations from collapsing the roof. It’s something I knew but could useful as a detail one might easily skip over. I don’t rememeber where the sentence is in the book but I CAN tell you it’s not under the Regional Influences under Features of Communities that speaks about geographical influences on a community.
The presentation is a mess. It becomes readily apparent when reading the book that it is a cobbled together short run printing of episodic ebooks (which it is conveniently). The writing suffers from a lack of editing. The grammar and punctuation are fine, but the content needs significant trimming. At 171 pages the book has zero lists, 1 sidebar, and a measly 7 pages of random generation lists focused on specifics likes guilds and taverns, not generating communities. The book would be both better as a reference and guide if it was not drowning in its own insulated content. In all seriousness judicious content editing and the formatting of lists and sidebars could reduce to book to almost half its size.
Take this first sentence under Rooming House:
“Rooming houses are accommodations intended mainly for members of the lower tier of the mid-dle class and the upper tier of the lower class and serve the needs of travelers who will be staying for a week or more in a particular area.”
And no, that’s not a typo. The book was previously 11 ebooks and there is the occasional hanging line break that shows up in the middle of a line now that the content has been formatted for print. The writing is long and obtuse. That is my largest problem with the book. It just isn’t formatted in such a way to be a useful resource. No granule of information is easy to find. The book forces you to sift through its poor language. Someone should have cracked open a proper RPG reference book, or at least an old science textbook to look at how to block the information to make it most useful to the reader. It’s the simple things like the Special Purpose Communities section not featuring communes, nomad camps, and boom towns. Why? Because they were already documented a few sections prior under Other Sorts of Small Communities.
That is the last, great failing of City Builder. It does so very little to actually help me put the pieces together and the bits that are there are buried in corners of random paragraphs. There are also a number of adventure hooks for each entry. I appreciate the ideas but would rather they be omitted and that effort better focused on making the meat of the product more usable. But even in the adventure hooks there is no consistency. Some entries have one hook and others have multiple hooks. All I wanted was a reference that would help me city build and guide me in designing communities. Unfortunately City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities is not that reference.
Really the greatest use of the book is it’s table of contents in conjunction with a few well-placed Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. Following the link trails of Wikipedia entries will better help you integrate the pieces into a living, breathing community. I would suggest picking up this book only if you are absolutely new to worldbuilding and need basic historical information. Even then it will not be long before your knowledge outpaces the book.
Favorite Entry: Pawn Shop
Why? I learned some new information about their operation, usefulness, and how lenient some of the establishments can be. From blatant usury and loan sharking to allowing a person multiple years, interest free pawning. I can easily imagine pawn shops getting heavy use thanks to their versatility in operation.
Least Favorite: General Store
Why? The book makes the distinction between Armory, Arsenal, and Blacksmithy (even mentioning the distinction of farrier) but then gives one shop for picking up all simple items. General stores were incredibly uncommon. Those few that existed were border wilderness trading posts (there’s a separate entry for it). The entries should have been combined under an ‘Outfitter’ entry. Both the general store and marketplace entries are infuriatingly underwhelming.
Table of Contents
Communities
Craftsman Places
Entertainment Places
Professional Places
Tradesman Places
Mercantile Places
Service Places
Scholarly Places
Religious Places
Governmental Places
Underworld Places
Appendix I: Guilds
Appendix II: Inn & Tavern Generation
Final Verdict
I wouldn’t make the purchase again, especially not the physical book given how difficult it is to use as a reference. But there is some OK information here. Pick up the individual ebooks that make up the 11 chapters if you’re looking for something specific or wait for a big sale on DriveThruRPG to pick up the ebook. At its ebook standard price $20 I can’t in good faith recommend City Builder: A Guide to Communities
Alternative
If somehow you haven’t heard of Medieval Demographics Made Easy and its derivative websites and random generators, check it out. I think it will serve you a lot better as a guide to designing communities. Bonus: It’s free!

5e Character Generation pt II

Welcome back for part two of the character generation process. If you haven’t read part 1, hop back to the previous post. This series of posts are developed in conjunction with Ryndaria.com. So jump over there to see the different

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Character Generation – A Look at the New D&D Player’s Handbook

I’m doing a parallel character generation post with my buddy over at Ryndaria.com, make sure you watch for his posts. You can read my new post over at Redraggedfiend.com, sub, kick me on Google+ and Twitter.

halflingpaladinmotiv

See Spot Passively Perceive

One of the things I noted when looking over materials from the shiny new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is the return of the Passive Perception box on the character sheet. I’ve always thought this was a strange character sheet inclusion for a game known for basic math skills and character information overflowing onto 2, 3, 4+ sheets of paper. It seems adding 10 to the skill bonus shouldn’t be THAT difficult to remember, freeing the space for more important information.

What struck me as interesting about D&D’s newest incarnation is the return of passive perception, but the omission of passive insight.

But really are passive checks necessary? I’ll save you some time by plainly stating no. The reverse of course being you can easily argue perception is always a passive check. Given the perception skill as we know it is an extension of the old spot check. You might argue as soon as you start looking for something you are no longer noticing a difference but actively searching for one, which could easily fall under the investigation skill.

But let’s assume we play with passive perception. Passive perception is a tool, and tools are useful so long as they have a use. So what is passive perception’s use? First let’s look at how it’s commonly applied:

Ex.

The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players of the trap in one of those stopped just before walking into the tripwire moments. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.

The use of passive perception is to protect players from their own ignorance. Is that Roll Play vs. Role Play, a situation of your character being more knowledgeable than you, the player? Maybe, but I assume the design choice was to obviate player stupidity from getting the PC killed. It’s insurance, a safety net.

But it’s more than a simple safety net in the above example. It’s go beyond insurance and into advocacy. The passive check does what the player wouldn’t do for himself. It’s the same when Google auto searches for something it believes (rightly so in my case) you misspelled.

So let’s roll it back to its original intent, the safety net. A successful passive perception is not equal to a successful active check, instead it offers the helpful hint: you should make a perception check now.

download

 

Passive perception is spidey sense. It’s the gut feeling something isn’t right: “it’s TOO quiet,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “there’s something but I just can’t put my finger on it.

The nice thing about doing this is the party can still screw the pooch. Let’s return to the original example this this idea in mind.

 

Ex.

The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players they feel a sense of trepidation about the hallway. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.

As any DM/GM knows, the moment you state a PC is getting a feeling or sense people will ask to make checks. Congratulations, they party will now make active perception checks against the trapped hallway! Now they can screw it up of their own accord. On a success they find the traps, on a failure you get a brand new situation rife with role playing opportunity as the party stares down a hallway no one feels comfortable walking down.

Just remember to make players tell you explicitly what they are looking for, no general use ‘can I make a perception check.‘ If they want to check the floor for pressure plates make them say so.

This idea of a safety net can transfer easily to passive insight. Passive insight is getting bad vibes from someone, active insight will be checks such as ‘do I believe he is lying about X?‘ or ‘do I feel like I can negotiate more money out of him?

Follow this simple principle and you’ll never have to worry about passive skill checks getting in the way of your game.

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Dungeons & Dragons: Free Basic Rules

Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).

So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.

Overall Impression

It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.

We SCREAM!

Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.

What Once Was Will Be Again

It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.

I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.

Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic

Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.

Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.

Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.

So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.

But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.

But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:

1997 – Purchases D&D brand

2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL

2003 – Releases D&D 3.5

2005 – Begins development of 4e

2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)

2010 – Releases D&D Essentials

2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements

2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)

WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.

 

Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)

Things I Like:

  • Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
  • Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
  • Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
  • Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
  • Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
  • One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
  • Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
  • Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy

Things I Dislike:

  • Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
  • Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
  • Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
  • Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
  • 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
  • No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
  • No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
  • Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage

So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.

Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.

Analog Gaming is Retro-Cool AKA People Crave Human Interaction

4.25 Years

Four and a quarter years it took me to get a magic sword in a play by post (PBP) game. I keep looking at that number and try to make sense of it but it refuses to seem real. It took as long for me to get a make believe sword in a make believe RPG game as it takes the average person to acquire an undergraduate degree from a university. The journey took a number of specific ‘adventures’ and required a trio of game masters to complete.

So what could I possibly learn from such an experience? Perseverance, dedication, patience, and how to take initiative. Worthy qualities surely and some that are by many accounts lacking in our modern age. As a society we’re all about the instant gratification. Don’t think that’s true? All you need to do is look at the rampant success of Free-to-Play games. These games are structured to make the player wait to play for free or pay to play now. Streaming television on demand, public wifi, texting, the world is all about the now.

But you know what’s not now? Table top games.

The resurgence of social, “face time” gaming shouldn’t really be all that surprising. In a world that continues to grow smaller but isolates our interactions more through technology people, especially younger generations, are starving for human companionship. Table top games thus are having a resurgence as are things like bowling and shuffleboard. Yes, shuffleboard, the game old ladies play on cruise ships. Who knows, Bridge clubs may be next.

So why are these things becoming popular again?

Well, I think we’re still too close to the now of the event to objectively examine. But, I think the popularity is due to a few, specific factors as far as I can tell

Time & Duration

Individual games have a short duration. You can have a fulfilling afternoon or evening of fun by completing 2 – 10 games. As long as people spend more time doing than it takes for them to travel to and from the location, it’s a win. Even better if the time can be spent completing multiple games/sessions. More completions = better use of time, we ‘accomplished’ more with our time.

Social & Attendance

As I touched on earlier, we crave human interaction. Humans are social animals, no man is an island… yada yada yada. The nice thing about table top games and social games like bowling is they rarely require more than three people to play, and many require only two players. We don’t feel bad if we’re not able to meet up with a group because they are still able to play and enjoy their evening. Likewise I miss nothing but a good time by skipping, there is no penalty for missing. There are also a good number of cooperative games for those people who dislike being competitive with friends and loved ones.

Low Barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve

These games are simple to learn. They generally have few rules and can be taught in just a few minutes to someone with no prior experience. Scoring is usually straightforward and easy to understand. Of course there are stupidly complex games, but generally these aren’t the sort of games that only take 20-60 minutes to play anyhow.

Requires attention but not concentration

These games do require attention, but they almost exclusively turn-based. Unless you are playing an in-depth game or a game that has liberal use of interrupt mechanics there is nothing for you to do between individual turns. For a modern world where most people have a tech device on-hand people are checking email, social media, texts, Youtube, news, and everything else in the world, this meshes nicely with the games.

You know what isn’t getting a real resurgence though? Pen and Paper RPGs.

Wait, I imagine you say. There was an uptick in interest in analog RPGs over the past few years. Things like 4e, and Acquisition Incorporated podcasts and video plays of RPGs by some celebrities opened the hobby up to some new audiences, garnered some new interest. But a seven year run was all the tenure 4e received, mix that with multiple brand managers going in different directions, unbalanced power creep and options, Pathfinder being born, and the excessive vitriol of edition wars that something can or cannot be D&D, as though its some binary criteria. Some R&D people leaving WoTC and the creation of things like 13th Age and Numenera. Not to mention WoTC refused OGL for 4e and refused to support prior editions of D&D.

TL:DR version: Because a sequence of crappy decisions and poor attitudes by developers/publishers and the community at large.

Why mess with all that when I can go back to Steam and load up Child of Light, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, or Skyrim, to get my RPG fix?

But specifically the reasons social gaming is getting bigger are the exact reasons RPGs are not.

Time & Duration

It takes time to play RPGs, like a lot of time. Sessions I’ve played have been anywhere from 2 – 12+ hours. Personally I find the sweet spot clocks in at about six hours. Nonetheless each session of an RPG is a segment, of a chapter, of a larger adventure path. You have to meet regularly. How often have you sat down at a table with friends after missing a game session or two and people have a difficult time remembering where the game left off? Full adventures often take years to complete.

Social & Attendance

RPGs are definitely social games, they’re cooperative games after all. But they require taking on a role, a persona. Adventures generally require problem solving and teamwork towards some specific end. You can’t just interrupt the process to tell a ten minute anecdote about your cat because it came to your mind. Attendance is also mandatory. If you have a party of four PCs and a Gamemaster, every one is critical to what is going on. If one person has a scheduling conflict everyone misses a session. In the cluttered schedules of the modern world, finding a time for everyone to play at all can be difficult.

Low barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve

This is a mixed bag. There are some pretty simple to learn and play rules systems out there. But sticking with the two biggest names in the hobby? The free barebones basic rules for the newest edition of D&D has over 100 pages. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook? 576 pages. Someone shows interest in RPGs and you hand them a novel to read before they can play? I know what Sweet Brown has to say about that. And with a community who showed plenty of hate for how the previous edition of D&D ‘dumbed it down’ for the video game/MMO crowd we really shouldn’t be surprised the younger demographics aren’t filling the hobby’s ranks and publishers’ coffers.

Requires attention but not concentration

One of the most aggravating aspects of RPGs is choice. If you can imagine it you can try to do it in an RPG. That’s part of the big selling point but also one of its most aggravating aspects in the microcosm of individual sessions and encounters. It’s someone’s turn and they have no clue what they are going to do, worse yet they ask you what’s happening because they spent the last 5-10 minutes flipping through the newsfeed on their phone. Now you get to wait 5-10 minutes to figure out what this person is going to do, meanwhile the others at the table begin looking at their technology devices and that’s really why it seems to take forever to get through most combat encounters in a game like 4e.

People complain about how boring fighters and clerics can be because every turn is heal or hit the monster with your weapon, but abolishing that simplicity doesn’t help the person playing the game who probably has ADD, because everyone has ADD these days, and can’t sit still for five minutes without being actively entertained.

This I think is the unfortunate state of affairs of the hobby. An old guard filled with grognards who need something to be dissatisfied with, publishers who don’t seem to be confident in their target audience and their ability to make money with an iconic product lines.

Am I critical? Yes, but not because I’m bitter, because I know the hobby can be really popular and great. I know these games can create memories we will cherish for years. Perhaps I am overly critical of modern society, but in a world where people have to be told to take ‘tech sabbaths’ it would be difficult not to be.

I should be getting back to a more regular blog schedule. In the future I should have a supplement review and I’ll speak a little about the new D&D rules… which will likely be different than what most people are focusing.