Monthly Archives: March 2012

On Creating Supporting Characters (AKA NPCs)

An indie game designer I’ve circled on G+, Greg Christopher, posted this link today, as a tool for GMs, and I thought it worthy of reposting.

Why I have been flogging the dead horse…

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of comments on WotC’s site and Google+ from gamers and I’ve been figuring out some things about what I’ve got against Old School gaming. What you’ll see below is basically a cut-and-paste of a conversation on Google+ that sums things up.

Me: Just removed a couple of people from my RPG circle, folks who made me realize what I don’t like about “Old School” gamers: they’re too hung up on the “game” and care nothing for the “role.” When character development is only that your character can kill enemies more efficiently, you’ve lost me. That’s high school crap I don’t need any more.
Response: that sounds more like the current D&D games then the old school games. The new games all I hear is balance and options and how the fighter should have as many as the Wizard.

Me: I don’t consider that a flaw, but a feature. I’ve played too many games in which I sat around doing nothing because I played a fighter, and my options were “I hit it with my sword, again.” That every character really has an opportunity to shine in a battle, rather than repeat the same boring actions every single round (as past editions have always forced onto the fighter), makes 4e a much more fun game for me and the “grognards” I play with. Most of my players have been playing as long as I have, 30 years, and started with AD&D, so we’re not a bunch of kids that don’t get it.

Since this is the direction I’ve seen your statement head, I’ll put forward what I’ve experienced now. I’ve been running 4e since PHB II came out (we had a 3.5 game we didn’t want to convert so near the end of our story). I’ve had nights when I run and we don’t have a single combat, and very few dice are rolled. So the old “you can’t RP with 4e” argument is complete and total bullshit. I’ve also listened to Major Spoilers’ “Critical Hit” podcast, as well as a couple of The Tome Show episodes, and I know my game is not the exception.

These “4e isn’t Old School” arguments don’t carry much weight with me. No, 4e is not “Old School.” For my group, it’s better. Old School has a competitive bent to it I don’t like. Old School encourages the players and the DM to compete against each other, when my experience has shown me that such competitiveness is why groups break up. Our high school games were like that, and I haven’t gamed with those guys since my first year of college, and I have no desire to any time soon. The conflicts between players and DM end up becoming personal, players develop pecking orders, and people end up angry with one another. I don’t want that. I’m older, and I don’t have the time to keep looking for new groups to game with. I game with people I love, who have become family to me, and I’d rather have that and a stable game group than the quest for new players or games the conflict inevitably brings.

That kind of brings me to some other concepts that I was going to cover later, and I may yet get deeper into later, and what I think gaming should be about. It’s about everyone getting a chance to shine, and I think older gaming styles avoid that. With the fighter dominating the game until about 5th to 7th level, then fading as the wizard becomes the real power in the party, one character (and thus player) or another shines and another fades. Someone is left not doing the Cool Stuff. And let’s not even get into how the rogue/thief becomes useless as the wizards’ spells start taking over the rogue’s job.

It was something I realized about the World of Darkness games that I don’t see elsewhere (although, I see it more with the non-Vampire games than that one). By giving every character access to the same powers, albeit with different flavoring and pacing, every player will have the opportunity to do Cool Stuff. The WoD has a certain play balance because every player has the same access to all the Cool Stuff. All this assumes that the PCs aren’t in conflict with one another. I saw the downside of PvP (to borrow from MMOs) a lot in LARPs, and in some of the crazier table top games I played. When the game allows (or encourages) PvP, players take the bait and attack one another, and often those attacks become personal, even if they didn’t start that way. When that happened, the games lost their fun, and revenge became the primary player motivation. I stopped playing with my high school group (and a couple in college and even after) when the player conflicts became to tremendous to overcome. When being at the game stopped being fun.

Everyone at the table being able to do Cool Stuff and not being encouraged to compete against the DM or each other creates a more fun environment. When they aren’t competing to survive the TPK the DM is trying to achieve, or with each other, the cooperative story has more room to grow, and the players are more creative in pushing it forward. The story becomes more focal, and the characters develop more personality, which in turn gives the group more to play with. Sudden death due to a “save or die” mechanic doesn’t sink the plotline anyone is developing, DM or player.

This is what I play for.

In some ways, I hate to beat a dead horse…

(Image pinched from

Neuroglyph really hit the nail on the head, and I told him so. I’ve mentioned why here before.

I guess I’m so focused on this because I really think D&D 4e is an extremely solid system. A lot of the things I hear a lot of players complain about (when they don’t say some vacuous argument like “you can’t roleplay in 4e”) aren’t bugs, but features to me.

Neuroglyph’s blog entry is here:

A glimpse into D&DNext 1.0

Wow, what a steaming heap of poo…

Why I find “Save or Die” poor gaming

In some of my reading over the past couple of days, I’ve caught a theme that applies to me.

WotC has put up more about ideas they are putting into D&D5e, with the constant return to old ideas with a mix of old and new mechanics. As I’ve stated, I’m just not interested in this direction. And then there is this new article On Gnome Stew:

The author, Walt, discusses how he handles equipment in different settings, whether assumed or purchased, in fantasy versus modern, etc.

As I read this article, something crystalized in my mind, and it’s something I think I’ve always found D&D lacking in, until the H-P-E series WotC released with 4e. D&D has always been published with the assumption that there is no overarching plot line to any DM’s campaign. Few module series have ever been more than a handful of episodes linked together (such as the infamous Giants-Drow-Demonweb series, and a few others), but only the HPE series carried the idea of a campaign from levels one to thirty. Now, note I’m also not counting the adventure paths of Dungeon Magazine when it was published by Paizo. WotC also did the Scales of War adventures, which covered a plotline from levels 1-30. These are, historically, uncommon, though.

But what my friends and I have run is always full campaign arcs, ranging from level 1 to somewhere in the Epic level range. I’m beginning to do some prep on a new campaign, and I can easily foresee a longer campaign, or a series of short campaigns. We run games with persistent characters, not unlike a novel. When characters die, it’s more dramatic than the old style “kill and raise/create” cycle, which always struck me as meaningless.

This is kind of why I find “Save or Die” effects poor gaming. Mearls commented in this in yesterday’s Legends and Lore article (, when he discusses why some folks don’t like “save or die” effects.

I and my players want storytelling, not the gamist, antagonistic play that the older editions fostered. While I play adversaries as ruthless killers who are trying to kill the PCs, I am not trying to get that vaunted TPK that some DMs think is necessary to prove to their players that their characters are threatened. In my book, that’s a path to an abusive relationship, and I don’t believe that’s actually conducive to anything more than the dissolution of gaming groups, as players and DMs come to resent each other. I’m building better relationship with my players, I feel, than the killer DMs I’ve met in my 30+ years of gaming. I’m guessing it works, as I’ve been gaming with most of my players since 1993 (and the players I currently haven’t been gaming with that long simply weren’t even born then).

Yeah, I’ll take a more cooperative, storytelling game game that doesn’t rely on micromanaging and TPKs over “Save or Die” any day.