January 29, 2013

Give Them Your Best Story

I am in the camp that believes that encounters with dragons are the epitome of a D&D game. They are something to be remembered and are a highlight of a campaign. And in over 30 years of running games I have only ever had the party fight a dragon twice. Which is a shame.

Visited a flying island? Never.
Enter the land of Fey? Never.
Battle an army of giants? Never.
Got carried away by a Roc? Never.
Killed Drow? Never.
Fought a horde of zombies? Never.
Swap bodies and minds amongst the party? Never.
Assaulted Hell? Never.

As a player, those are the sorts of adventures I want to go on. In a way, many of those are iconic adventures. However, I seldom, and sometimes never, run those because I am waiting for the “right moment”…and that moment never seems to come. Sometimes because we want to “make it special” we keep saving the encounter.

Instead of taking this waiting approach we should give the players something epic as soon as we can. And then follow it up with something else epic. The goal should in actuality be to provide the players with at least one epic thing each night of gameplay. My above list of missed adventuring opportunities is only a small list of epic things that the players can encounter. Trust me, you will not run out of ideas, not in this age of the internet and the multitude of adventure ideas out there for our perusal.

So, don’t hold back the good stuff for a day that may never come.

January 22, 2013

The D&D Movie and Setting

Recently Tabletop Shop Talk asked what would happen if Disney bought D&D much the same way they bought Marvel Comics. He brought up the points that Disney pushed forward the superb Marvel movies, along with new video games and TV series. Could they do this for D&D? More to the point of this article, could such a company create a D&D movie on par with the recent Avengers movie?

One of the things I think the current line of D&D movies are lacking is an iconic character. The D&D movies are about D&D, not really about the characters and that is a huge stumbling block of the current set of D&D movies. The Marvel series of movies have established characters people already know. The audience buys into the characters. Not so with the D&D movies. A D&D movie needs an iconic character.

And for this we need to look at the past of D&D.
The settings and novels of D&D have created iconic characters. But now the question is...which well-known character or setting should showcase a D&D movie?

Dragonlance was huge back in the day and already has a movie...an animated one...that went direct to video and garnered rather harsh reviews...

"there's little to recommend within Dragons of Autumn Twilight and it fails on nearly every level. It's saddening to witness such a lame adaptation of fantasy material with so much movie potential." Source.
"D&D fans might get a kick out of seeing their favorite characters brought to the screen, but it's hard to ignore so much genre cheese and sloppy filmmaking. Skip It." Source.
" It's been a long time since I've come across a film this bad—animated or live-action." Source.

Can there still be a Dragonlance movie? I believe there can be. The setting and story is unique and the characters are dynamic and interesting. But it would have to be live-action and done with skilled hands.

Drizzt and the Forgotten Realms would also make an excellent movie choice. Even for those people sick and tired of Drizzt and Drow, I believe they would still stream to go see a well done Drizzt movie, especially if it focused on the Icewind Dale Trilogy. In fact, the Forgotten Realms is a ripe field to pick from for movies with Elminster and Artemis Entreri having achieved iconic status in the D&D world. 
I feel the Forgotten Realms has the best chance of sustaining a movie franchise.

There are of course other possibilities...
Dark Sun: Despite having some strong characters that could sustain a movie it is too divergent from mainstream D&D (medieval fantasy) to build a franchise on. A set of movies could still be made, however.
Greyhawk: Solid setting but lacking in iconic characters unless we include the former player characters such as Tenser, Robilar, Bigby etc. While many D&D players know of these names, there are virtually no stories or characterizations of them making identifying with them difficult beyond their names.
Eberron: A unique world but without iconic characters. 
Planescape: Too trippy for a mainstream/non-D&D audience.  
Ravenloft: With the concept of individual domains this prohibits a centralized focus and thus there is no true iconic character other than Strahd and maybe Van Richten. However, it could make for a good D&D movie, but not a franchise. 

What do you think? What characters or setting should a big name movie production company hang their D&D hat on?

January 15, 2013

Pursuing a Career in Game Design

Recently an 8-year old ask on the forums of World of Warcraft/Blizzard how to become a game designer. One of WoW's designers, the lead system designer Ghostcrawler, answered. Even though the topic was in reply to a computer game, within his reply is some excellent advice for anyone wanting to design and sell their rpg ideas. The advice is geared for those looking to join an existing company (such as WotC), but it still highly relevant for those looking to start their own company.

Here are some highlights with me bolding the really good points...

"Next comes experience. You need some kind of experience to get a job in game design. Playing a lot of games does count as experience, but it’s the kind of thing that’s hard for us to test. You’re better off playing a lot of games and doing something else as well. Career experience as a professional game designer is of course the most desirable. Blizzard is in a position where we can afford to be really picky about who we hire so we often look for prior experience. I will quickly add that plenty of our designers didn’t have any, but it helps a lot. Less established companies are more likely to give a beginner a shot, and once you have some experience, you’ll have a lot more options. If you can’t get a job as a game designer, you can try to get a job in a game company and hope to move sideways into game design. We have several designers who worked in quality assurance and customer service. You just have to get your foot in the door."

"The second is to design your own game. That is easier than ever in this day of mobile devices, but still not a trivial feat you can throw together on a weekend. This next part is important: we like to see completed games because it shows you can finish something. One of the dark secrets of game design is that good ideas are cheap. Nobody gets hired because they had a great idea for a class ability or a raid encounter let alone a great idea for a game. They get hired because they can take those ideas to the next level, foresee problems, come up with solutions, and otherwise put in all of the hard implementation work long after the shininess has worn off of the original idea."

"If you can’t build an actual game, then the third thing you can try is to create an add-on, level or some other additional content for an existing game. Finishing that project isn’t as impressive as finishing an actual game, but it can still work. (This is how I got my foot in the door – I designed a scenario for Age of Empires that was eventually included in a shipping product.)"

"Fourth is to be involved in the game community. You can host an awesome fansite, write a gaming blog, or make your own podcast. It might not illustrate your design cred, but it can get you noticed. If all else fails, try to be involved in beta testing. It’s tricky but possible to detect a good design sense from beta feedback."

"In all of these cases, what you’re trying to do is to develop a portfolio – something you can send to a company to show your chops. Artists can show their art. Programmers can submit sample code. A designer needs to somehow prove that he or she can design."

"If you want to be a game designer, you’ll do more than just make games – you will be a member of the game-making industry. Try and keep up with industry news. Understand the upcoming platforms and the hot new genres and technology everyone is talking about. This is much easier in the internet age than it was a dozen years ago. It’s not always feasible, but attending game conventions can help. Companies often use those events for recruiting and you can ask a lot of questions and get a lot of information once you’re talking to someone face-to-face. Advice I give for anyone in any industry to get a job is networking. We are much more likely to go to bat for a candidate we know, especially if we have some idea of their design skills. This doesn’t mean cold-calling or emailing folks in the industry – that risks just annoying them. It’s not easy to get to know people, but it can open doors. Here is where being a game journalist, famous player, or website designer can come into play."

"Keep in mind that game studios are businesses. They have budgets and headcounts like any company. To get a job, you’re generally going to be applying for an existing open position. It takes the truly one-in-a-million candidate that can get a position created for them. Don’t blanket email companies; I don’t think I’ve ever seen that tactic work. Apply for specific positions, and if none are available, consider contacting the company HR representative to inquire if some might open in the future. That HR rep can be your greatest advocate, so don’t badger him or her. We have hired people who had off-and-on email conversations with our human resources team members for years before the right position came along."

"That’s the hard part. The fun part is playing a lot of games. Don’t just play them though – devour them. Understand why they’re fun. Think about what you’d change if you designed the game. One question we frequently ask in interviews is: what is the worst part of your favorite game and how would you fix it? One of the quickest ways to fail an interview for the WoW team is when we ask “What would you change about WoW?” to answer “Gee, I hadn’t really thought about that before.” "

"I’ll close this monologue by talking about some of the traits that Blizzard looks for in game designers; other companies may place values on different traits.
  • A good design sense. Analyze systems as a game designer, not just a player. A player might look for the most efficient way to progress through a game or search for the most powerful choices for their character. A designer understands why a certain way is more powerful or efficient and if that’s even a good thing for the game (and again, how to fix it).
  • Creativity. This is less important than a lot of folks outside the industry think, but it’s still important. Creative problem solving is often more important than creativity in naming creatures or coming up with good stories.
  • Implementation. We spend 5% of our time brainstorming and 95% of the time sitting at a keyboard trying to get things to work. (We use our own proprietary tools, but also a lot of Photoshop, Excel and Visio.) We want people who can handle bugs, manage their time, solve roadblocks, survive pressure, handle critical feedback, know when to quit and when to soldier on, and overall just not get distracted. This is one reason why seeing finished work in a resume is so valuable.
  • Communication. As I said, we talk to each other, other members on the team, other people at Blizzard, and the community of players. Constantly. Designers need to be able to think on their feet, criticize ideas without causing hurt feelings, accept feedback, and understand what other people are saying. The best designers make you feel like you are being heard. We do have introverts on our staff, but it’s probably more challenging for them.
  • Passion. This is probably the easiest one. It’s important though. You need to love games to do this job. I’m not sure what the most surefire career is for making millions, but this isn’t it. You’ll be asked to work long hours. You’ll be asked to playtest a game long after you’re sick of it. You’ll be expected to play new games as they come out to see what you can learn from them. You’ll be asked to cut your favorite feature. Passion for games is the reason most people want to get into the industry in the first place though, so you’re probably fine here.
The biggest challenge for folks breaking into the industry is making themselves stand out. Saying “I love games” is important, but it’s not enough, because thousands of players will say the same thing. You have to demonstrate that you love games *and* know how to make them without actually being able to talk to anyone, because you haven’t gotten the interview yet. I invite anyone who makes it to let me know so I can personally congratulate them. It’s hard and it’s worth it."

January 8, 2013

Choices at the Die Roll

One of the things I always liked about Legends of the Five Rings rpg was the Roll & Keep system for die rolling. If you are unfamiliar with it, most contests allowed the player to roll a number of dice, but then they could only use a certain number of them; the chosen dice gave the total of the die roll. Usually the player would always choose the highest die rolls (since rolling high meant greater success), but there were times when a player would actually want to roll poorly. I remember once in a game I was running, the party leader wanted the rest of the group to do something a certain way and pulled rank on them. One of the players purposely chose the lowest rolls she made and thus "failed" in the task...and accomplished her real goal of denying the party leader.

Not many game systems allow player choice at the die roll. Sure, they get to choose the color of their dice. Sure, they can make sure to roll a d8 for damage instead of a d6 because they are using a long sword instead of a short sword. But that is about it for die choice. There are not a lot of systems that allow for die choice at the time of die resolution with any sort of meaningful impact.

I recently picked up the Oubliette rpg. It uses an interesting die mechanic wherein the player gets a pool of dice. The player then rolls the dice, keeping the highest roll. However, before the roll the player can choose to remove dice from the pool and instead gain a +1 to the total for each die removed (up to a limit). Here the player is presented with a choice of how many dice to roll (upping the chance of a higher roll) or adding to the overall total (and thus lowering the chance of rolling high on the remaining dice). I'm sure there is a mathematical break-point where keeping some dice outweighs rolling more dice, and vice versa, but it still presents the player with an interesting choice. Personally I like the concept of allowing for meaningful choice at the actual die roll.

Can you think of any other game systems that allow for choice at the die roll?