Chess and RPGs and Stories

October 7, 2014

So recently John Wick, who is a heck of a smart dude and a heck of a game designer, wrote a thing about chess and RPGs and stories, and everyone spent a moment in thoughtful contemplation.

Ha, no, of course not.  Everyone freaked right the heck out.  And who am I to fight a trend?  Anyway, this won’t make much sense unless you go read John’s thing first, so you definitely should.

“These things are roleplaying games, and these other things are not roleplaying games” should not, in theory, be anything to freak out over.  In practice, people have always freaked out over this sort of thing:

  • “This stuff is punk music, this other stuff is not punk music”
  • “This stuff is science fiction, this other stuff is not science fiction”
  • “These opinions are feminist, these other opinions are not feminist”
  • “These people are Christian, these other people are not really Christian”
  • “These objects are planets, but Pluto over there is not a planet”

Always with the freaking out, despite (or perhaps because of) it not really making any difference.  One day call Pluto a planet, the next call it not a planet — it’s still the same cold ball of rock that it ever was.  One day call D&D an RPG, the next decide it’s not — it’s still the same thing.  Nothing changes.  “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

I’m predisposed to the tack taken by the fine people over at Story Games who basically decided, fine, if calling something an RPG is really upsetting you that much, we’ll call it something else.  Anyone get upset if we call it a Story Game?  No?  Okay good.

That’s not a bad segue into stories, which is mostly what Wick is talking about.  “The focus of an RPG is to tell stories” he asserts, and I’m not inclined to disagree with him.

Here’s a story:  “Gutboy Barrelhouse was born, grew up, and found some friends.  They wanted some gold, and they heard there was some gold in a hole in the ground, so down they went.  Then Gutboy got stung by a giant bee and he died.”

That’s a story.  Maybe it’s a good story, maybe it’s not — that argument has been around long before anyone was arguing what’s an RPG and what isn’t, and lots of people a lot smarter than anyone I know have tackled it, and we’re still not any closer to solving it.

So let’s say we have the story of Gutboy and his good friend Falstaff and how they descended into a hole in the ground.  It’s a D&D story which means, as I have mentioned earlier, that it’s about our heroes solving their problems with violence.

How shall we establish contrast and distinguish between the characters of Gutboy and Falstaff?  It won’t be through their motivations, because they share the same motivation.  It won’t be through their past, because they have no past.

The obvious answer is to distinguish them by their personal means of inflicting violence, which is, of course, what our story is about.  Ergo, a big list of weapons is exactly what this story needs, despite John Wick’s assertion that it’s just noise that gets in the way of telling the story.

And we get a story of Gutboy inflicting violence upon his enemies with a dozen tiny knives and deaths of a thousand cuts, and of Falstaff decapitating his foes with an enormous bearded axe, and it’s a good (or not) story.  Then they get stung by giant bees and die.

We see this all the time in non-RPG but still violence-based stories.  Characterization through weaponry, I mean, not death by giant bees.  Dirty Harry and his .357 Magnum.  James Bond and his Walther PPK.  David and his sling versus Goliath and his sword.

I mostly agree with what John Wick has to say on this topic; I think our slight disagreements arise merely by virtue of being interested in different types of stories.  Which is, of course, not any sort of problem at all.

“Fixing” an overheating laptop

September 30, 2014

(Not RPG-related.  Sorry.  Also not a good idea, so don’t do this.)

So the one feeble fan trying to keep my laptop cool just wasn’t succeeding.  The obvious “solution”: remove that inconvenient obstruction blocking the fan.

The before pic, with scale:

The during pic, with cuts on the top, right, and bottom sides:


The fan exposed; shortly after this pic I tore off the grille entirely.


Did it help?  Seems like it.  Hasn’t overheated yet.

Violence Through the Ages (of D&D)

September 26, 2014

A smart person, upon considering my last post, asked me about how it relates to the various editions of D&D over the years.

The short, easy answer is that the basic Promise of D&D has been invariant; it’s as true today as it was in 1974.

The longer, but somewhat less on-topic answer, is more interesting.  To speak in the broadest of generalities:

In older D&D, violence is the means to an end.

In newer D&D, violence is the means and the end; violence is its own reward.

Let’s consider how this informs certain facets of the game.

Experience Points:  To start with the obvious, in older D&D, the characters won most of their XP from treasure, and practically none from slaying monsters.  Although they typically pulled the treasure from the bodies of their slain enemies.  In newer D&D, the characters don’t get any XP from treasure, but instead get almost all their XP from slaying monsters.  In other words, we shift from “killing monsters to get their treasure” to “killing monsters to kill monsters.”

Morale:  Older D&D typically features a system to model the morale of enemies, so that there’s some chance that some of them run away to fight another day.  This is no problem because the characters have no reason to mind, as long as the monsters drop all their treasure before running away.  But it is a problem in newer D&D, when the entire point is to kill them.  Various systems to award partial or full XP for fleeing opponents have been attempted, but they’ve never really worked that well.

Random Encounters:  The traditional way to ‘punish’ characters who take too long to get on with it, act overly-cautious, argue loudly, or are just unlucky is to subject them to a random encounter.  These monsters generally have little or no treasure, so are strictly nuisances in OD&D.  With newer D&D, a random encounter is its own reward, and it hardly makes much difference to the characters if they’re fighting four orcs who randomly jumped them on the side of the road or four orcs who have been patiently waiting for them in a 10’x10′ room.

Wealth:  When picking up gold means picking up XP, the characters have a good reason to pick up gold.  When gold is just a shiny metal to buy things with, there’s a certain pressure to give the characters something meaningful to buy — or to live with them just leaving sacks of gold lying around because they can’t be bothered to pick the heavy stuff up.  The most common wealth sink in various version of newer D&D is ye olde magical item shoppe, which is not a terrible solution, but it has its own problems.

Goals and Motivation:  When violence is its own reward, it becomes trivially-easy to encourage the players to attack just about anyone or anything, which makes the DM’s job that much easier.  When the players are trying to maximize their profits, there’s an additional layer of planning and consideration.  It’s no longer enough just to kill some orcs; now they want to kill specifically the orcs with the most treasure.

Magical Items, Again:  In older D&D we generally don’t see a lot of characters buying a lot of magical items, but we certainly see characters selling them, to get the treasure and thereby the XP.  As a result, no magical item is ever really pointless, since it can be converted to XP.  And even the useful magical items will tempt the players to consider selling it for the XP anyway.  With newer D&D we also see the selling of magical items, but that just gets us back around to the question of what they’re doing with all that gold, and the answer is probably that they’re buying other magical items with it.

This sort of retrospective analysis reveals more about the effects of game design than it does about the goals of game design.  I have my doubts that any of the authors of any of these versions intentionally set out to encourage any of these particular behaviours.  But it remains a useful analysis, in my opinion.

The Promise of D&D

September 25, 2014

I’ve been thinking lately about the promise of D&D.  By that I mean I’ve been thinking about its ‘product promise’ or ‘brand promise’ or whatever the latest buzzword for the concept is — that any product carries with it a promise to its consumer:  Consume me, and… some certain thing will happen.

It’s a little weird to apply this to something like entertainment and RPGs, but I think it relates to what theme (or Premise, if we want to drag Egri into this, and of course we do) will be expressed.  For example, I might offer that the promise of the romance novel is that true love will prevail over all obstacles.  Can this be applied to D&D?  Let’s see…

Let it be resolved that:  The promise of D&D is that all the important problems in life can be solved with violence.

That’s sort of a big bold statement, so let me carry on with immediately backtracking and clarifying.

Look, if your own personal D&D game involves 90% of the time spent talking to people, or peacefully marching through the wilderness, or otherwise not sticking sharp pieces of metal into squishy bags of meat, that’s just fine.  I’m not trying to tell you you’re playing D&D all wrong or missing the point or anything like that.

I might suggest that D&D, as a system, doesn’t offer as much support as several other systems for problem-solving methods beyond the immediate application of stabbing.  But you probably already knew that, so let’s move on.

And if you solved a couple of your big important D&D problems without resorting to violence, out of dozens, that’s fine too.  I don’t believe D&D promises that you must solve all your important problems with violence — merely that you could, if you felt like it, which you probably will.

So let us proceed with assuming, at least for the moment, that I might just be on to something here.  Does it tell us anything useful?  I think it might.

The Pacifist Character:  What happens when someone wants to play a D&D character who isn’t really all that motivated, or perhaps even capable, of applying violence to their problems?  I would suggest to you that there is an inherent, mostly intractable problem with this, and it’s never really going to work out all that well.  About the closest to success we can get is the pacifist healer, who spends all his time ensuring that his violent friends can continue applying violence to others without suffering too greatly from the violence being applied to them.  Which, yes, is some brand of pacifism, in theory, but it does look quite a bit like violence-by-proxy.

The Economic Campaign:  It’s possible to set up the party as merchants, almost always some brand of importing, exporting, or otherwise transporting merchandise, disregarding monsters and acquiring wealth.  How likely is this sort of campaign to flourish?  If there’s lots of violence involved, the odds are good; if there’s not, the odds are not good.

The Political, Diplomatic, Chatty Campaign:  A campaign can start with, or eventually evolve into, a series of peaceful conversations between the player characters and everyone else.  These can flourish particularly well if the experience affirms Carl von Clausewitz’s adage (and its reverse) that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”; but they often struggle otherwise.

The Natural Alignment of the D&D Character:  Every once in a while someone smart asserts that most D&D characters drift towards evil, or it’s easier to run a campaign for evil characters, or something of that sort.  I’ve never quite agreed with them, but I’ve never quite been able to entirely dismiss the notion either.

I think what we’re getting at here is a relatively profound statement about the human condition:  people who believe that violence solves their problems are, to some degree and definition, evil; the more problems they think violence will solve, the more evil they are.

Please note that I’m not trying to assert that all or most or many D&D players — the real-life human beings — are, in fact, evil, or even have evil tendencies.  The allure of the dream, to pretend to be in a world where the good guys can solve all their problems with violence, stems precisely from the moral unwillingness to pursue that approach out in the real world.  And it’s a powerful dream — I would suggest there’s lots and lots of examples in every sort of media which offer up this same basic promise.

This is a considerably more controversial statement to make about humanity than just some theory about an RPG, so I think I’ll just leave it here as an object to contemplate upon.

I now really want to tackle other RPGs and figure out what their Promises are, but I think this is a good start.

5E: Battle of the Sexes of the Monsters

September 24, 2014

So there’s been a bit of a discussion around the gender distribution of the monsters in the 5E Monster Manual.  More research is always better, so I did some counting myself.

To cut right to the bottom line:

Total Monster Illustrations: 277
Asexual Illustrations: 221 (80%)
Males Illustrated: 37 (13%)
Females Illustrated: 19 (7%)

Ergo, changing 9 male illustrations to female illustrations, or 3% of the total illustrations, would result in gender parity.

My data and comments follow.  It is, by its nature, often a judgment call, and I can appreciate that others may have different judgments.  Maybe it’s obvious that flumphs reproduce by fission and I just missed it.  Alas, I’ve done my best.
Sexual Biology, Depicted Ambiguously [88]

Carrion Crawler
Dinosaur, Plesiosaurus
Dinosaur, Pteranodon
Dinosaur, Tyrannosaurs Rex
Displacer Beast
Dragon, Shadow
Dragon, Ancient Black
Dragon, Ancient Blue
Dragon, Ancient Green
Dragon, Ancient Red
Dragon, Ancient White
Dragon, Ancient Brass
Dragon, Ancient Bronze
Dragon, Bronze Wyrmling
Dragon, Ancient Copper
Dragon, Ancient Gold
Dragon, Ancient Silver
Dragon Turtle
Faerie Dragon
Hobgoblin, Warlord
Hook Horror
Kuo-Toa, Archpriest
Kuo-Toa, Whip
Lycanthrope, Werebear
Lycanthrope, Wereboar
Lycanthrope, Wererat
Lycanthrope, Weretiger
Lycanthrope, Werewolf
Ogre, Ogre
Ogre, Half-Ogre
Orc, Orc
Orc, Orog
Rust Monster
Sahuagin, Sahuagin
Sahuagin, Baron
Yuan-Ti, Abomination
Blink Dog
Giant Eagle
Giant Fire Beetle
Octopus, Tentacle
Giant Spider
Riding Horse
Swarm of Bats
Winter Wolf
NPC, Druid

Ambiguous or Unknown Biology, Depicted Ambiguously [49]

Aboleth [1]
Beholder, Beholder
Beholder, Spectator
Blight, Needle Blight [3]
Blight, Twig Blight
Blight, Vine Blight
Cambion [4]
Chimera [6]
Fungi, Gas Spore [11]
Fungi, Shrieker
Fungi, Violet Fungus
Gibbering Mouther
Intellect Devourer
Mind Flayer
Naga, Spirit
Naga, Guardian
Ooze, Black Pudding
Ooze, Gelatinous Cube
Ooze, Gray Ooze
Ooze, Ochre Jelly
Purple Worm
Shambling Mound
Slaad, Red
Slaad, Blue
Slaad, Green
Slaad, Grey
Slaad, Death
Umber Hulk
Death Dog
Phase Spider

Asexual, Depicted Ambiguously [46]

Demon, Balor [8]
Demon, Barlgura
Demon, Chasme
Demon, Dretch
Demon, Glabrezu
Demon, Goristo
Demon, Hezrou
Demon, Manes
Demon, Nalfeshnee
Demon, Quasit
Demon, Shadow Demon
Demon, Vrock
Demon, Yochlol
Devil, Barbed Devil
Devil, Bone Devil
Devil, Horned Devil
Devil, Ice Devil
Devil, Imp
Devil, Manes
Devil, Pit Fiend
Devil, Spined Devil
Genie, Marid
Golem, Flesh
Hell Hound
Mephit, Dust
Mephit, Ice
Mephit, Magma
Mephit, Mud
Mephit, Smoke
Mephit, Steam
Skeleton, Skeleton
Skeleton, Minotaur
Yugoloth, Arcanaloth
Yugoloth, Mezzoloth
Yugoloth, Nycaloth
Yugoloth, Ultraloth
Zombie, Ogre

Asexual, Depicted Asexual [35]

Animated Object, Animated Armor
Animated Object, Flying Sword
Animated Object, Rug of Smothering
Beholder, Death Tyrant
Crawling Claw
Death Knight
Elemental, Air
Elemental, Earth
Elemental, Fire
Elemental, Water
Galeb Duhr
Golem, Clay
Golem, Iron
Golem, Stone
Helmed Horror
Invisible Stalker
Modron, Monodrone
Modron, Duodrone
Modron, Tridrone
Modron, Quadrone
Modron, Pentadrone
Naga, Bone
Salamander, Fire Snake
Salamander, Salamander
Shield Guardian
Water Weird
Zombie, Beholder

Sexual, Depicted as Male [19]

Centaur [5]
Duergar [10]
Elf, Drow Mage
Giant, Cloud
Giant, Fire
Giant, Frost
Giant, Hill
Giant, Stone
Giant, Storm
Gith, Githyanki
Gith, Githzerai
Gnome, Deep
Yuan-Ti, Malison
NPC, Archmage
NPC, Bandit Captain
NPC, Cult Fanatic
NPC, Noble
NPC, Thug

Asexual but Traditionally Depicted as Female, Depicted as Female [7]

Banshee [2]
Devil, Erinyes
Dryad [9]
Hag, Green
Hag, Night
Hag, Sea

Asexual, Depicted as Male [7]

Devil, Chain Devil
Genie, Djinni
Genie, Efreeti
Zombie, Zombie

Asexual but Traditionally Depicted as Male, Depicted as Male [6]

Angel, Deva
Angel, Planetar
Angel, Solar
Devil, Bearded Devil

Sexual but Traditionally Depicted as Female, Depicted as Female [5]

Lamia [9]
Merfolk [12]

Asexual, Depicted as Female [4]

Demon, Marilith
Genie, Dao
Vampire Spawn

Sexual but Traditionally Depicted as Male, Depicted as Male [4]

Cyclops [7]
Minotaur [13]
Androsphinx [14]

Sexual, Depicted as Female [2]

Yuan-Ti, Pureblood
NPC, Scout

Ambiguous or Unknown Biology, Depicted as Male [1]


Ambiguous or Unknown Biology, Depicted as Female [1]


Asexual but Traditionally Depicted as Male, Depicted Ambiguously [1]


Sexual but Traditionally Depicted as Female, Depicted Ambiguously [1]


Sexual but Traditionally Depicted as Male, Depicted Ambiguously [1]



[1] Aboleths have been around a very long time, and “they never die”, and the average campaign setting is not knee-deep in aboleths; together, this implies that aboleths probably either cannot reproduce at all or reproduce in some manner very different from standard biologies.

[2] The undead in general are a bit problematic under this sort of analysis.  They generally either cannot reproduce themselves (zombies, for example) or reproduce in a broadly asexual fashion (wights, perhaps.)  Still, they’re generally formed from the corpse of a sexual creature, so there’s that to consider.  Finally, a monster like an undead skeleton might be depicted as the remains of a sexual corpse, but I personally do not have the expertise to identify the sexual dimorphism present in the human skeleton.  I’ve done the best I can with the undead, but there’s a certain amount of inherent arbitrariness in how I’ve classifed them and their depictions.

[3] Tree-related-monsters are a bit of a challenge.  Some trees have distinct male and female individuals, such as poplars.  Other trees do not.

[4] Cambions have the fiend type, but they also seem to be half-mortal, so I’m not sure what their reproductive capabilities might be.

[5] Somewhat tempting to classify the centaur as ‘traditionally male’, yet female centaurs go back to at least 400 BC, so I’m not convinced it’s a strong tradition.

[6] Probably chimerae have two sexes, but the possibility of them being strictly-hermaphroditic is too tempting to sweep aside.

[7] The various Cyclopes of myth are invariably male, but it seems as likely as not that the D&D monsters described here are, like others of the giant type, sexual.

[8] If I was arbitrary with the undead, it’s ten times worse with demons, devils, yugoloths, and all the rest of these extra-planar non-biological entities.  A few are obvious but many are not; I’ve done my best, but I certainly hold no grudge against anyone who comes down on the different side of the fence on these ones.

[9] Very close to calling this depiction ambiguous, but the traditional sources for the dryad were just enough to tip me over to one side.  Much the same situation with the lamia.

[10] It’s always a tricky thing to sex dwarvenkind by their beards, but this default position seems relatively safe.

[11] There’s so much variety in even the real-world kingdom of fungi that I hestitate to assume much more.

[12] I don’t think it’s a stretch too far to lump mermaids in with the merfolk, so I have.

[13] I live in hope that someday we’ll see a female minotaur with battle-ready armoured udder, but let’s say that I’m not holding my breath.

[14] Every monster could adopt these prefixes.  “You’re attacked by three androbugbears and four gynogoblins!”  It might clear up a lot of confusion.

Monster Manuals: Monsters and Lore

September 23, 2014

Let’s categorize the monsters and their lore into 3 levels:

1. I can build an encounter around this. E.g. stirge, troglodyte, zombie.

2. I can build an adventure around this. E.g. intellect devourer, revenant, myconid.

3. I can build a campaign around this. E.g. slaad, modron, aboleth.

(Background:  I originally wrote this as part of a forum thread, but it seems like a good enough idea that I want to capture it here for later contemplation.)

All three are useful for different things, but it also seems that many people have some inherent preference for one particular level.  I think the 5E Monster Manual hits the mix just about right for me, but I can appreciate that tastes vary on this one.

Sometimes you just want a meatsack with some hitpoints and a sword, is all I mean.

One Thousand Pre-Generated Commoners

September 4, 2014

Continuing on from the success of One Thousand Pre-Generated Characters, I’ve produced a file of One Thousand Pre-Generated Commoners, compliant with version 0.2 of the Basic Rules.


Download One Thousand Pre-Generated Commoners here.


Among my favourites: #24, Nedda Battlehammer, a proud dwarf reduced to mere cartographer due to her truly pathetic Strength score.  Still, at least she’ll give you a map that doesn’t lead you straight into an ambush, unlike #25, Dagnal Gorunn.

5E: The Thing About Backgrounds

August 27, 2014

The thing about backgrounds in D&D 5E is this:  they’re strictly past-tense.

They’re not what you are — they’re what you were.  What you are, now, is an adventurer.

The most important question to ask about your background is what changed? Why did you stop doing whatever your background describes and start adventuring?  — Player’s Basic Rules, pg 36.

The official backgrounds, unsurprisingly, pretty much get this right.  Perhaps also unsurprisingly, a lot of fan-made backgrounds are starting to mess this up.  Just something to keep an eye out for.

The Death Dog, Illustrated

August 12, 2014

“A death dog is an ugly two-headed hound that roams plains, deserts, and the Underdark.”


Based on the most excellent silhouettes by Telecanter.

The Shortest 5E PHB Review in the Multiverse

August 11, 2014

5E is the “Yes you can!” edition.



Can I play a multiclass barbarian/monk/paladin?  Yes you can!

Can I cast magic missile in plate?  Yes you can!

Can I start off at level 1 playing Drizzt?  Yes you can!


Okay, there are still a few “no”s in here — no, you can’t wear chain maille as a druid, because druids honor nature by killing cows and wearing their skin, duh — but there’s fewer restrictions than any other edition that I can think of.



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