Tag Archives: Tome Show podcast

User hostile: How to make a good game book painful to use

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast has the seeds of a solid adventure. While characters visit the town of Daggerfall, they investigate mysteries like a theft and a suicide. Leads take them to a variety of dungeon sites in the region, mostly overrun with evil humanoids. At the conclusion, they can learn the secrets that tie the threads together. Recently, I finished running the adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. See “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition” for more.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

As an adventure, Scourge of the Sword Coast may be solid, but the product plumbs a low for usability in play.

When I reach a such a damning conclusion, I begin to question my adequacy as a dungeon master. Perhaps, an adequate DM can spend a couple of hours perusing the 75 pages, understand all the nuances, and recount details 10 weeks later when players uncover answers.

But I am not alone in my conclusions.

Ace convention DM Ed Kabara writes, “As a GM I felt things were too cluttered with important information being mixed with bits of encounters. I felt like the story needed a diagram to really help me to organize my thoughts regarding the plot.”

On the The Tome Show podcast, the round-table reviewers ask for more attention to formatting and organization, cite the need for a more help running the adventure, and suggest adding a timeline.

For a taste of what makes Scourge so difficult to run, imagine your players finish a key encounter, and you face this line on page 63, “If the characters save Shalendra, they can learn the story of Baazka and the specific location of Bloodgate Keep.”

First, you cannot actually reveal the specific location of Bloodgate Keep, because that lies in the next adventure. If you look for something more specific than “in the Forlorn Hills,” then you will waste time.

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Can you find anything?

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Quick! Find Baazka’s story.

Second, suppose you cannot remember all the details of Baazka’s story, so you page back through the text looking. Page 23 includes a “Baazka” subhead, but not his story, so you keep paging back. Meanwhile, you have lost your players attention. On page 15, you face this page with a “Shalendra Floshin” heading atop a column of undifferentiated text. Perhaps that hides the information she tells the players. Should your start skimming, or try the adventure background on page 3? Quick, find Baazka’s story before you lose everyone to their smartphones or to chatter.

I wish my example came from a single bump, but every time I reference this text, I find myself hunting. Every time, I wind up thinking that I remember seeing more about that, but I have no idea where.

Some of the challenge stems from the authors’ ambition. Scourge combines a sandbox with a plot, as multiple villains scheme even as the characters adventure. Like any sandbox, the text organizes around locations and characters, but all the details of the story lay threaded through these descriptions. This is why reviewers keep pleading for diagrams and timelines and advice on running the adventure.

I wish Scourge of the Sword Coast stood out as an anomaly, but it just represents another low as Wizards of the Coast grows increasingly indifferent to the usability of their products. The adventures that preceded it were just as bad. Dead in Thay mostly consists of keyed dungeon locations, but piecing together the information for my players’ handout seemed like a detective’s job.

How does Wizards of the Coast take perfectly good game content and make a book that creates hassles at the table? I suspect they focus on cramming as much content as possible into a book’s page budget, without allocating pages to indexes or other usability improvements, without scheduling the necessary drudgery of adding cross references, play aids, and index entries. I think the authors and editor approach game books as they might a novel, something to be read from start to finish. I think the typesetters and designers approach game books as a magazine that must lure potential buyers at a newsstand. Neither group of artists seems to have accepted a bitter truth. You produce technical documentation. Your stories will only come alive if you create documents that enable players to bring them to life at the table.

Next: Five ways to create more usable game books

Speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments, and skill challenges

(Part 3 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons included lots of rules that no one uses: weapon speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments. A little of that tradition lived on in the first year of fourth edition. No one played skill challenges exactly as written in the first fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. At the very least, you did not start skill challenges by rolling for initiative.

According to the book, the Dungeon Master announces a skill challenge, the players roll initiative, and then take turns deciding on a skill to use and inventing a reason why that skill might apply to the situation. No one may pass a turn.

In short, everyone interrupts the D&D game and starts playing a storytelling game.

At Gen Con 2012, Robin D. Laws, one of the authors of the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, held a panel discussion on story advice. The Tome Show podcast recorded this panel as episode 201. When giving advice on running skill challenges, Robin Laws gives a succinct description of the original skill challenge.

“What I found myself doing when I was running 4E was putting a lot more onus on the players to describe what they were doing and make it much more of a narrative world-building than just here’s these particular obstacles that you have to overcome.
“‘You go on an arduous journey. Each of you contributes in a significant way as you’re going through the desert, and some of you wind up in a disadvantageous position. So tell me what it is you do to contribute to the survival of the party.’ And then I go around the table round-robin style and everyone would have to think of something cool and defining that they might have done.”

This flips the normal play style of D&D. Normally players encounter obstacles, and then find ways to overcome them. Now the players participate in the world building, inventing complications that their skills can overcome. I’m not saying this is wrong for a game. The market is full of storytelling games where players cooperate to tell stories, a process that can include taking turns inventing complications. This sort of collaborate storytelling may even be the preferred style of play for some D&D groups, though I have to wonder why those groups would choose to play D&D over a game that better suits their interests. I argue that for a lot of D&D players, this style did not feel like D&D very much anymore, and that is why skill challenges evolved over the course of fourth edition.

Robin’s description of the players’ role in the skill challenge is particularly interesting. He says players search for “cool and defining” things they could do. That could be fun, but challenges never play out that way. Most players just search their sheets for their best skills and try to imagine ways to justify using them. I suppose under Robin’s coaching, or with a game that encourages that play style, players might seek out cool and defining things. Unlike D&D, story games can encourage that play style mechanically. For example, story games often have mechanics where you define you characters by simply listing their unique and interesting aspects. This might be as simple as coming up with as list of adjectives or keywords describing your character.

Neither D&D’s tradition nor the skill challenge mechanic encourages players to overcome the challenge by inventing cool and defining actions for their character. D&D’s mechanics encourage players to look for their highest skill bonus, and then concoct an excuse to use it. I am certain that both Robin Laws and I both agree that this strategy makes D&D less fun than it can be.

He prefers a game where players share more of the narration, world-building role. Many fun games support that that style of play, but D&D is not one of those games. (Robin mentions that his HeroQuest game inspires the way he runs skill challenges.)

When I play D&D, I want to immerse myself in the game world and think of ways to overcome obstacles. My actions might involve skill checks, by they often do not.

Less then three months after the 4E release, Mike Mearls began his Ruling Skill Challenges column. He writes, “In many ways, the R&D department at Wizards of the Coast has undergone the same growing pains and learning experiences with skill challenges, much as DMs all over the world have.” The column starts a  process of recasting the skill challenge, making it fit better with the usual D&D play style.

Next: The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge