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Dark Souls: The D&D Video Game that Isn’t Actually D&D

If somebody asked me “what video game today best represents old school D&D,” Legend of Grimrock comes to mind, but ultimately I think Dark Souls would be a more interesting and equally qualified answer. Given the raft of actual D&D games, branded with D&D on the box and everything, why on Earth would I think this? Hopefully I’m convincing.

Megadungeon Format

Dark Souls very much takes place in a megadungeon, and a well-made one at that. If you strip away the visual properties and various idiosyncrasies of the game and focus only on the fundamental design tropes of megadungeons you’ll find this to be the case.

Branching, Looping, Linear Pathways

Megadungeons consist of corridors with walls, meaning you are generally on a linear pathway. Sometimes these are broken into larger areas (rooms) filled with content, but the rooms only have a low number of exits (usually no more than 4 and often as few as 1 or 2). Dark Souls, perhaps simply because games are limited in this way but also probably due to design intention, is similarly made up of linear pathways punctuated by expansive “rooms” or, more video-game-appropriately, “arenas”, in the parlance of the Half Life 2 developers at Valve.

At the same time, though, these linear pathways tend to branch and loop. For more analysis of the types of exploratory pathways in games you can see this post on ENWorld. Further writing on the merits of designing good layouts of linear pathways is this piece by The Alexandrian. These are together probably two of the best examples of analyses on how to design combinations of arenas and linear pathways as far as it concerns roleplaying games, so they make good reading and say basically everything I ever could regarding background.

In summary, Dark Souls doesn’t offer an open world like Skyrim – you don’t have 360 degrees of motion between most locations – but it does offer multiple paths, shortcuts, secret passages, and the like. In Dark Souls, like in most good megadungeons, arenas are connected to each other in multiple discrete linear ways, and those connecting paths themselves are often interconnected.

Re-Stocking Enemies and Re-Treading Terrain

Megadungeons do it every time you leave (or in some cases even when you roll a random encounter, to some extent), while Dark Souls does it every time you rest at a bonfire (or die). While Dark Souls’ enemies don’t change the way a megadungeon’s might, they do still come back, and that means that just like a D&D megadungeon the megadungeon of Dark Souls is designed to not be permanently “clearable”. In Dark Souls, just like in megadungeons like the labyrinth under Castle Greyhawk, you also unlock shortcuts between areas (mentioned above) meaning what begins as re-treading dangerous ground over and over eventually becomes a much more streamlined adventure, much like higher level PCs skip straight to the lower levels of a megadungeon via some shortcut or direct access they have found, thereby reducing the amount of time the players spend re-treading familiar terrain and dealing with re-stocking enemies. Additionally, in both cases, as you level up you will find re-treading the same ground to be much easier than it originally was, but also providing much less reward. These two factors combine to encourage you to push forward outside of any story motivation – mechanically you are drawn to areas that are of appropriate difficulty, since these areas will provide reward commensurate with your out-of-game skill and in-game power level.

Subtle Narrative

There are a few ways that narrative happens in a megadungeon, and most of them aren’t what we think of when we think about exposition in modern RPGs. In a D&D megadungeon you can only reliably get information in a few ways. You can ask NPCs (most creatures wouldn’t be willing to help, though) if you manage to find any (or rarely you can ask NPCs outside of the megadungeon, but their chances of possessing significant knowledge is much less), you can look around for messages, writings, maps, and that sort of thing left behind by some precursor to yourself, you can learn by personal experience (you walk in the room and there are orcs? You know there are orcs in the room now, congratulations), or you can learn by some method of divination of non-language artifacts (either literally by using magic or more like an archaeologist by piecing together what you find laying around into a coherent story).

Dark Souls does all of these things in a very similar framework. You learn about the lore of the Dark Souls world in a few ways –

  • A short introductory cut-scene.
  • Rare, stilted, dialog with non-hostile NPCs.
  • Messages left by other players that fit a purposefully limited format (“[thing] ahead”, or “beware of trap”, for instance).
  • Non-contextual item descriptions of loot you find (you’ll get the story of the item in a few sentences, but no explanation of how it fits into the larger picture).
  • Seeing something for yourself (“oh, shit, there’s a hydra in the lake!”)

All of these are distinctly limited and present to you sufficiently less than the whole picture (and, often, aren’t even entirely accurate, as in the case of player messages). They’re generally lacking in overall context, and have a direct 1 for 1 with how you learn things in a traditional D&D megadungeon. Messages on walls, messages attached to items, observation of the environment… all of these are regular elements of what modern D&D designers term the “exploratory pillar” of D&D – finding out new stuff without it all being dumped on you at once by McLecturePants the Plot-Giving Elf.

People have eventually compiled histories of Dark Souls’ lore, just like players can eventually piece together the history of a megadungeon, but it took significant effort and there are still gaps that need the interpretation of these game-world historians, just as in a megadungeon environment.

A Land Where Stuff Is Weird

As one would be informed by the entry under W in The Dungeon Alphabet, megadungeons are all about being weird. They often (though not always) represent a mythic underworld (see page 22), where things have a sort of internal sense that defies complete scientific classification no matter how hard you try. It’s a brutal landscape for no apparent reason. In OD&D monsters can pass through doors without a care in the world but those same doors are stuck for the players a full third of the time, and even if the players get them open they have a habit of closing themselves and becoming stuck again unless spiked. In OD&D monsters can see in pitch black, unless they’re in the PCs’ service, and then they miraculously lose this method of vision. It’s designed to make the game challenging, sure, but the realistic repercussions of these game design decisions is that the world is seriously weird and seriously hostile in the narrative as well.

Dark Souls is no exception here, either. It’s designed to be difficult compared to most modern games. This game design decision (difficulty) needs justification in the world’s fiction, however, and so by playing as an undead monstrosity yourself you can’t truly die permanently no matter how many times you get sent back to the last checkpoint. The brilliance of this associated mechanic that explains “restart at checkpoint” in game-world terms aside, when’s the last time you played as an undead monster in a game? Probably never if you’re most people. When’s the last time you fought a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth or a giant magic butterfly or a flaming spider-centaur with a pyromancer witch as the torso? This kind of unique strangeness, generated partially by strictly game-centric design decisions being reflected in the narrative, is paramount to enhancing the feeling of exploration made possible by the previous section.

Level & Sublevel Theming

A common thing to find in most megadungeons are highly thematic “sub-levels” (smaller areas bound within a close proximity), or slightly less thematic (but still differently themed) whole levels. Put at its simplest, Dark Souls does the same, and is even kind enough to label them for you (Valley of Drakes, Blight Town, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, and so on and so forth). At its most basic, this is just about creating differently themed “zones” so that things don’t become monotonous.

Under a Big Tent

The concept of the “big tent” campaign comes from the very early days of D&D with Gygax at the helm. Since he knew many people interested in playing games of this sort, they invariably all hounded him to run them – and the games grew truly to unwieldy proportions. Perhaps some 20-odd players inhabited his home campaign, even sometimes sitting at the same table! But, more generally, they drifted in and out as the mood suited them, and the more prolific players whose characters’ names live on in infamy were just the ones who played more often and were thus more successful.

This drifting in and out of players, and the discussions the players would’ve had about what they found in the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, mimics the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls (or perhaps I should say Dark Souls mimics it, chronologically speaking) almost perfectly. The fact that Dark Souls encourages you to come together to solve the problems of a shared environment (via cooperative summoning or messages, or in the meta aspect by simply talking to other people who play the game on regular internet message boards or otherwise) is extraordinarily similar in concept to how a giant rotating cast D&D game worked back then. Some days some people went into the dungeon, other days different people went in, and sometimes they compared notes, and mixed and matched companionship of their characters as the situation warranted.

This sort of individual shared experience (you were never guaranteed to play with the same people consistently, but you all played in the same world) is a quirky similarity, but one nonetheless.

A Land Where Danger is Everywhere

The final point here is that megadungeons are not amusement park rides with fake scares and cheap thrills – they’re designed in large part to be a game and therefore a test of skill. Not only this, but their early-D&D rulesets were pretty unforgiving of mistakes or even of bad luck. Dark Souls is no exception here, either: it is to most games what gutter bowling is to bumper bowling – in some cases literally, as bottomless pits with no safety rail will regularly attest; it’s a fair, but punishing, alternative. It embraces the war-game-like feel of early megadungeon play, where the trick is for the players to outsmart the environment and progress towards a distant point of actual distinct victory (name level and making a fortress in the wilderness, enabled by their earlier successes in the megadungeon).


As I’ve demonstrated here, Dark Souls is simply the video game that gets megadungeons, and by getting megadungeons it is probably the best representation of “old school” D&D that I can think of in video game format. It has some other elements that it shares with D&D, like leveling up and weapons and armor with plusses on them, but those aren’t what makes it like D&D; they’re just superficial similarities. It has things like PvP combat, too, and that makes it no less D&D all the same. The trappings – the PvP additions of Dark Souls or the weapons with plusses – aren’t what makes the games what they are. I think that reasoning belongs to the framework of play itself: the environment.

If you care about seeing and experiencing a representation of the design aesthetics all those OSR(Old School Renaissance)-types are constantly going on about, therefore, Dark Souls is probably just about the best and clearest alternate version of that experience (complete with moving pictures and sound effects) available in a box, period.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM


Changing Things is Easy, Changing People is Hard

Full disclosure: this will be a very high-falutin’ theory post. It will not give you actionable material for Saturday’s game, but it may prompt in you some thoughts of your own that may yield results many weeks down the line. Your mileage may vary.

One of the reasons I originally followed @TheIdDM on Twitter (and one of the reasons I regularly took the premises of some of his posts on his blog and ran with them on my own) was not only the fact that he did for a living some of what I found very interesting as a hobby (behavioral psychology), but also that he tends to prompt some very interesting questions. One such question he prompted on Twitter went as follows (hashtag included for completeness’ sake):

It’s interesting that so many people have replied “the people make the #rpg” and yet so much time is spent discussing systems. Unbalanced?

And he’s right. What is the deal with that? For my own part, by far the majority of the content on this blog is about systems and not about people even though the people are the most important part of RPGs. Well, turns out 140 characters (or even several 140 character chunks) simply can’t be enough to express my thoughts here, so let’s begin… and hopefully by reading this you can begin to think about it, too, whether you agree with my thoughts or not.

Systems and People

Perhaps separating these two things into their own categories is something of a misnomer. After all, if we come to the logical (though disconcerting) conclusion supported by causal determinism, we can figure that a person is actually just a system with a lot of imperfect information involved. That thought is perhaps worthy of its own post, but probably on a philosophy blog and not a gaming one, so I’ll move on and leave the thought at that. For our purposes, we’re going to assume that, at the very least, the difference in degree of complexity of a human system and a tabletop RPG system turns into a difference in kind, and we’ll treat them as separate.

The first thing we need to realize here is that the tool (the RPG system) and the tool user (the person) are actually relatively inseparable, even if we don’t consider them both to be systems of simply different complexity but instead as distinct entities. Consider for a moment the martial artist wielding a sword. The sword is his tool, and if he sets it down it remains a tool but it performs no useful action. For sake of defining terms let’s consider tools that perform actions when left alone to broadly be considered automated tools (and, while we’re provoking thoughts about tools that only do things when they are used let me point you, dear reader, towards the delightful problem of the prime mover; tangential, but lots of fun to think about). In contrast, we are going to be interested in tools like the sword rather than the high-frequency stock trading machine, in that our tool of choice – the tabletop RPG – is largely non-automated.

The fact that the sword does nothing without the input of the martial artist is very much like the fact that the tabletop RPG does nothing without the input of the player(s). If nobody is there to try to take and resolve fictitious actions then the system is nothing but a pile of symbols printed on paper gathering dust in your garage (or, for the more digitally-inclined among us, a set of bits gathering e-dust on your digital storage device of choice).

There is another fact that this analogy illuminates: the martial artist can fight both with and without the sword, and while many principles are the same, the specifics of execution are generally very different. This points out that we can use many different systems, and while each of them will give us something different and worth having, at the same time the ability to play an RPG (or defend yourself) lives entirely within the player (or martial artist). Put more simply: a sword and your hand (and D&D and Call of Cthulhu) are different means to the same ends, and the skilled user can use both. Confused yet? Sorry.

Basically, the fact that you can do something different with D&D than with Call of Cthulhu is no different than being able to do something different with a rubber mallet than a steel clawhammer, or a sword than a spear. Using this knowledge, then, let’s try to look at things from a simpler perspective.

Systems as Tools

Let’s change our analogy for a minute and discuss firearms, a topic hot in the mind of the United States and around the world. If you go to a forum for firearm enthusiasts, and you say “I want a firearm to shoot at things”, the very first question you’ll probably be asked before anyone helps you decide what to buy is “what things are you going to be shooting at?” If the answer is “people breaking into my house” the gun you want is different than if the answer is “a deer in the woods”. Why? Because different guns make certain gun-centric tasks easier than others. This is the principle behind specialization: a specialist tool will beat a generalist tool at the specialist task.

The same is true of tabletop RPGs. Running a game set in the Cthulhu mythos is probably easier with Call of Cthulhu than it is with GURPS: specialist vs. generalist. Given that running an RPG at all is generally a specialist task (given how niche the hobby is, and how fragmented it is), it is probably no surprise that discussion about what system to use is the first thing that comes up. Just like the gun enthusiasts, the RPG enthusiasts assume that you are a constant and the tool is the variable. What’s up with that?

Systems as Variables and Affecting People

The answer is in the title, really: people are harder to change than systems (or at least they are systems that are harder to change than other systems). What is quicker, generally: establishing a new habit or making 30 dollars to pick up a new RPG book? Usually effectively making habits takes about a month of performing a task routinely (I speak anecdotally, but I think it’s pretty typical that it takes a few weeks before you can truly begin to do tasks on autopilot). Meanwhile making 30 dollars to get a new RPG book takes, in the US, at most a fair chunk of a day of work. If it’s 30 times faster to get a new RPG book than it is to make new habits, is it any wonder we’re obsessed with the quick fix? And really, shouldn’t we be? Why do things the hard way? More on that in a minute.

The difference between learning to shoot accurately with iron sights on a rifle at 400 meters and putting a telescopic sight on your rifle is the exact same difference between learning to use D&D in the horror genre and buying Call of Cthulhu. This is because, as I’ve established, it’s a lot faster to spend the cash and get the specialized tool for the job that makes your life easier. But… why does it make your life easier? What’s going on?

As it turns out, just as much as the person affects the tool (that is, without the person the tool will not function), the tool also affects the person. If you are using a certain tool, you will be doing a certain thing. Ever hear the saying “if all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail”? This is what that’s talking about. If you have a pistol you really shouldn’t be shooting at targets 400 meters away, and if you have a sniper rifle you’re really better not walking inside a house and shooting somebody right in their face from 10 feet away. By simple virtue of having a specialist tool you are going to use that specialist tool for its specialist task. If you have Call of Cthulhu out on the table, chances are strong that you’re going to run a horror game. If you have Ars Magica, chances are you’re going to be running a game about wizards in the late middle ages. And on and on.

What that means is something I picked up on as soon as I first played Spirit of the Century after only having played D&D: a good system is going to manipulate you into doing things, even things you ordinarily wouldn’t think to do, that fit the experience the game is trying to help generate. At the time I referred to its character generation method and use of Fate points, compels, invokes, and aspects as “tricking you into roleplaying well”. It felt very clever, that a game through clever use of incentives and the rules can make you do something well even if you suck at it to begin with.

This means, in fact, that we come around full circle. If you want to hit distant targets, and you’re bad at shooting at distant targets, you may want to invest in a telescopic sight. But once you get used to hitting targets at a far distance, you’ll find hitting them without the sight much easier than it used to be. If you can’t fight at all, learning to fight with a sword is going to make you suck less at fighting unarmed too (although perhaps not to a great degree). And so, with RPGs, if you can’t do horror games at all, Call of Cthulhu is there to instruct you, consciously or not, on how to do horror games.


So, at the end of that 1500 words, here’s what I’ve concluded. People are more important than the tools they use. But, despite this, the people and the tools are inextricably linked. There’s a reason forums across the internet discuss the best gun, or the best hammer, or the best RPG system: the tool is incredibly important, and it is also the easiest thing to change. And, by changing your tool, you can also change yourself. Slowly. Two birds, one much easier stone.

Post-Script –

There is one thing I noticed that didn’t really fit with the flow of this post, and that’s how damn easy it is to change the tool of a tabletop RPG. Just about anybody who’s played one for a couple of hours can start changing the rules willy-nilly and at no real cost to themselves. Consider audiophiles, or car enthusiasts or any other hardcore fandom of tools, who spend thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire the perfect tools. Now consider how much gamers spend on dice and minis – again, thousands for tools in many cases. But now consider that the most critical tool to the tabletop RPG gamer – the game system – is exceedingly inexpensive. There is no real barrier to entry to start talking about how to improve an RPG system, and indeed by their very nature RPGs require their users to tweak the rules in at least very small ways (custom monsters, traps, whatever). Compare this to, say, firearms, where only licensed professionals are even allowed to make most of the changes to those tools (while they may not apply the telescopic sight, they made it, and they made the gun it’s on, too), and you have a serious recipe for endless discussions on the system rather than the people since basically anyone can contribute (though not always well). Just something to think about, I guess.

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #5: All About Initiative

This is the fifth of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Initiative: What is it? And what are the different ways to do it?

Initiative is the general term used first by D&D (and probably taken from earlier wargames) to describe what thing (individual, team, army, whatever) acts first in a turn based game that involves action resolution. Because it’s difficult to do real time systems without some kind of computational engine to handle abstract task resolution, turn based is basically how we have to do it.

There are several categories of initiative for action decision, and they don’t always pertain exclusively to combat. Here are the ones I’ve heard of –

  1. Individual determined – through some statistical (i.e. mechanical) method you determine which singular entity will go at what times in the turn order.
  2. Group determined – through some statistical method you determine which group of entities will go at what times in the turn order.
  3. Individual/group non-determined – through some arbitrary non-statistical method it is determined who goes when.

The first one we are probably mostly familiar with from modern (3e, 4e) D&D. You roll your individual roll, and you go when it says you go. The second comes in a few distinct flavors, such as “side” initiative, or “chunked” initiative. This was the original category under which 1st edition AD&D operated, whereby each side (the heroes and their retinue vs. the monsters as a team) either went first or not as an entire group. The third kind of initiative we should all be familiar with if we’ve played RPGs before from the times when we weren’t fighting anything. You just kind of determined who did what on an ad hoc basis without much of a resolution system in place until it seemed important that speed was a real factor, and that’s what this category represents.

In addition to these categories, there’s also something inherent to initiative systems, which is their flexibility. Systems that let you act later than the system says you should on purpose, or that let you interrupt the order due to some special clause in the rules, or that recalculate initiative each round (as 1st edition D&D did, for instance), all have some measure of flexibility. Having the right kind and amount of flexibility is important if you’re concerned with making what is a turn based system resemble more closely the reality of simultaneous resolution.

Speaking of simultaneous resolution, that’s the final part of initiative systems. While what I’ve described up until this point is the system under which you determine who decides what to do first, also part of initiative systems is deciding who acts on their decisions first. In individual initiative systems this is generally the same order as the decision-making, while in group initiative systems it’s usually left to be murkier about who acts when. Some systems explicitly try to replicate simultaneous resolution (war gaming is especially a place where you might find this) to some degree, and others don’t.

Different kinds of initiative: why should you use them?

This is a question to which you can probably already begin to guess the answer, given just about every RPG ever published has a different take on initiative, both in and out of combat, from every other RPG ever published. Basically, the way initiative works determines at the absolute most basic level how players interface with the game in different situations. And, if everything you do is filtered through some kind of initiative system, it’s probably a good idea to think about that system!

Some historically important initiative systems follow –

1st edition Advanced D&D

The critical elements of 1e AD&D’s combat initiative system is that in combat it is side based (though it says it could be individual based it specifically mentions that often that would be too cumbersome), is resolved at the beginning of each round (so the order of combatants who go first can regularly change), and has a system whereby spell-casting is basically decoupled from normal initiative (declare spell prior to initiative resolution, then see how long it takes and if you’re interrupted while you do it via normal initiative actions).

You can read more here about why this system might be interesting.

3e+ D&D

Critical elements here are that surprise is no longer resolved statistically, while initiative is by default individual based and resolved only once. You can, however, shift the order of the combatants by passing on your normal turn in order to act later, or in some cases (particularly in 4th edition) break into the initiative order through various rules-exceptional actions that can trigger based on certain conditions being met. This is probably what we mostly think of when we hear “initiative”.

5th edition Ars Magica

Acts mostly like the above later editions of D&D, except you can also designate several characters as a “party” (often composed of hirelings or their equivalent, rather than the powerful mages around which the game revolves), and they can determine their initiative as a group in what is otherwise a (relatively) permanent determined-once-at-the-start and individual combat initiative system.


Notable in that, like Ars Magica, it can determine initiative both individually and as a group, but also that over its course of versions has waffled between using a roll + stat for initiative order, or just using the stat.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Notable as an example of not only a GMless RPG, but also an RPG that uses a non-statistical initiative system that is still determinant, like so –

“The player to start is the member of the company with the highest rank in society. Standard rules of etiquette apply : religious titles are always deemed greater than hereditary titles, and those higher than military titles ; if of similar rank then compare subsidiary titles, number of estates or centuries that the title has been in the family ; youth defers to age ; when in doubt the highest military decoration takes seniority ; and for the rest I refer you to the works of Messrs Debrett or Collins.

If by some mischance of birth or the poor organisation of your host you are all commoners then the first player shall be he who was wise enough to purchase the most recent edition of my game. If several have, then I thank them all ; if none have then I worry if you possess sufficient understanding the nature and responsibilities of nobility to play a game such as this, relying as it does on good judgement, generosity of spirit, proper understanding of the necessity of the patronage of worthy artists, writers and publishers, and not being a pinch-penny. If this manner of beginning is not agreeable, then the player to start should be he who was last to refill the company’s glasses.”

Dungeon World

No list of notable initiative systems would be complete without Dungeon World for a very simple reason: it uses the same initiative system both in combat and out of combat, which is something most fantasy RPGs don’t do. And, what’s more, it is a non-statistical system based on the whim of the group or orchestrated by the GM’s whim, which most RPG players would be familiar with as to how you handle initiative outside of combat in most games.

So what are these all good for?

Each of these systems of determining who acts when and in what capacity gives a slightly different spin on the way you interact with the world. I could go on and on listing more and more systems you could rip off and steal, but these should suffice in terms of training you, the reader, to recognize what an initiative system does for you given each of the different methods. Acting strictly individually tends to have the benefits of somewhat modeling the confusion of fast-paced action – you don’t really get a few minutes to discuss what you plan to do if bullets are flying by your head right this very instant (and it also tends to speed up play by focusing more on the doing and less on the planning). It can also lead to bigger surprises the less input others have into each others’ actions (which you can see at work in GMless games for the most part, like Microscope). Acting in larger groups, with more opportunity for discussion, tends to slow the game down, but also make it more engaging as you solve problems as a social unit.

These are especially true if individual initiative has congruous action decision and action resolution, and if group initiative has diverged action decision and action resolution as discussed above in the previous section.

Some initiative systems are more realistic, allowing constant interruptions and simultaneous action resolution, but they tend to suffer in terms of pacing what they gain in terms of verisimilitude.

Having initiative systems determined by whim rather than statistics is another road, usually less travelled as far as RPG combat is concerned, but it can bring with it a strong sense of natural flow and momentum when the group is well-coordinated or well-conducted by a game-master.

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

Like in the last entry, these questions are best answered by you, not by me. The initiative systems I’ve presented here are but a small sampling of the kinds that exist, with what I hope was a pretty comprehensive overview of the different categories and what they’re good for. If your game isn’t in danger of going too slowly but is way too rigid feeling and needs some more player engagement and social focus? Go ahead and get some group initiative going and decouple action decision and resolution. If your game is going way too slowly? Maybe focus on individual initiative with closely coupled action decision and action resolution, verisimilitude and social problem solving be damned. Try using mechanical initiative where normally you use fiat initiative, or try using fiat initiative where normally you use mechanical initiative. Try recalculating initiative each round when normally you don’t, or try not doing it when normally you do. This is one of those things where you’re probably going to want to experiment, and all the while ask the three house rule test questions – they work just as well in retrospect as in prospect!

Ultimately, of course, you can probably subscribe to the simple notion “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you and your group don’t think you need to make a change then don’t! But if you feel like, hey, yeah, maybe the way we do initiative could use some work? Hopefully this has been a help.


You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#4: Abstract Inventories

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #4: Abstract Inventories

This is the fourth of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Abstract Inventories: What are they?

Abstract inventories are essentially ways to reduce what your character carries to something that is more manageable than planning a real backpacking trip. This is a very diverse field, but some examples include the slot-based systems of Torchbearer and Dungeon World, or the “just use what seems reasonable” system of Fate. Many people already usurp the latter for use in their D&D games, but I’d like to talk about the former methods in particular.

Traditionally, the calculation of a character’s encumbrance in an RPG relied on two major factors: weight (or mass, which on Earth or an Earth-like-planet means basically the same thing for our purposes) and volume (or size). If you look back as far as 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons you’ll find the former factor at work, while it takes only a few years more for 2nd edition AD&D to add the latter, with various bags being listed with given volumes and of course items being listed with weights in tenths of pounds, itself a practice dating back to 1e’s listing of weights in coins, which were themselves tenths of pounds.

While it is really interesting, as a sidebar, that a game primarily about thieving treasure out from under the guard of dangerous monsters would give you an item’s weight literally in gold coins so you could tell, indeed, if the item was “worth its weight in gold” or not, it is also problematic for the reasons I’ll give next.

This turned out to be a bit of a problem. Volume quickly became finicky and was for most people the first thing on the chopping block, as people hated doing Tetris in their heads. Soon afterward, weight followed, and for many it probably even went first during the time of 1st edition. The game of D&D quickly became about “just carrying what seems reasonable”, a house-rule adopted by nearly all players of D&D today and the beginnings of abstracted inventories.

However, as mentioned above, there are other ways to abstract an inventory out that are more than just based on the fiat of the game-master to say “you can/cannot carry that”, which I’d like to talk about more.

My own first encounter with abstract inventories was from The Alexandrian’s encumbrance by stone system (follow the link at the header of the article to the OD&D version to get the gist of what it’s all about, that’s a hub article), whereby you bundle items into ~10-20 lb blocks (in the case of OD&D, 15) and only ever interact with them via those blocks. Items that aren’t sufficient to warrant their own block are bundled together into a fifth of a stone, and from there you add them together into a full stone. Basically, while it ignores volume for the most part, it turns weights in tenths of pounds (meaning you’ll regularly carry around a 3 digit number, sometimes a 4 digit number if you’re rather encumbered) into weights in whole numbers that for the most part stay under 10. This is a pretty good way to do it, but I wasn’t convinced it was as good as it could be, and so I carried on looking (at the time I was in need of some encumbrance-based-gameplay for thematic reasons).

Later on I found Matt Rundle’s Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker, which really opened my eyes to the problem of ignoring volume – you start cramming everything “in your bag”, even if it wouldn’t fit. One particularly poignant example was a story I once heard (fictitious or otherwise, you decide) of a DM who showed his player there was no way to carry 150+ arrows in his backpack by going out and renting/buying (I’m fuzzy on that detail at this point, I heard it long ago) that many arrows and dumping them on the game table. While encumbrance by fiat for volume while still using weight seems like it might be realistic enough for most purposes, in reality people make this kind of mistake all the time. Humans are generally poor at visualizing 3 dimensional space, which is why mechanical and civil engineers are put through training in that regard. The anti-hammerspace item tracker hopes to fix this by cementing items to a specific location. This means not only can you interact with them (“your backpack flies open and your rations fly into the gaping maw of the purple worm!”) better than by fiat, but you have a pretty clear limit on how much to carry. Its slot-based design is very visual. Speaking of slot-based design, that’s also what Dungeon World uses – turning weights and volumes into an arbitrary number of “slots”, which you may have X number of.

Finally, I came across Roles Rules and Rolls’ Putting Two Great Ideas Together and I was in love. It had abstracted weights and volumes into simple to use, low value, whole numbers, and it also had a sheet by which you could have definite interactions with those items. It was simple and easy to use as well as visual, and also about as realistic as one could hope for. It says a lot, of course, that a game specifically about dungeon crawling (Torchbearer) from those who gave us Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard uses a very similar system.

An addition I came up with for many of these systems is that it is very easy to use physical tokens, like poker chips or beads or whatnot, to track consumables. Having 30 poker chips in front of you makes it easy to simply discard as many as arrows you shoot – much easier and much more visceral than erasing a number on a piece of paper!

Abstract Inventories: Why should you use them?

Abstract inventories are all various ways in which you can simplify encumbrance from “pack a real backpack full of this stuff and carry it around” at one end towards “just carry what seems reasonable” at the other end. Along the way are varying levels of realism and detail, many of which I’ve discussed above, including what each of them are for. This is a more general list, which I’ll keep shorter since this article is getting quite long:

  • Reduce the complexity of tracking what you’re carrying so that you can maintain momentum when you bring it up in gameplay.
  • Find the right level of realism for the theme of the campaign you’re running. At one end are things often better suited to a more realistic simulation of travelling, while at the other end are things often better suited to improvisational games.
  • For some, simply get the concept of “you can’t carry that much” back on the table in the first place! Lots of people ignore encumbrance thoroughly in games where it might be fun, if only it wasn’t so complicated!

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

This is a hard one for me to do within the scope of the article because so much relies on picking the right version for the game you want to play in. Ask yourself these questions in regards to making each of the above methods fit your game if the game’s encumbrance system as written doesn’t seem to do as good a job as you would like. Make sure that it fits the theme of the game (detailed encumbrance by weight and volume in a superhero game probably isn’t going to go over very well, nor is fiat in a hexcrawl), make sure that it actually seems like it would make things better, and make sure that you’re picking the version that is as simple as possible that still does that job.

You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#5: All About Initiative

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #3: Skilled Backstories

This is the third of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Skilled Backstories: What are they?

Several games use this mechanism, including two I’ve already covered: STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game and the Fate system games like Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, Fate Core, and more. What I refer to as a “skilled backstory” is the mechanical coupling of your character’s backstory with the skills that you use in some way (for Fate this is via Aspects, while for STALKER it’s via skills, for instance). Traditionally the association is a skill or two for early life, a skill or two for your teenage years, and a skill or two you’ve picked up since then, but the exact matching of time period to number of skills varies (and that’s a good thing for us!).

A Skilled Backstory mechanism creates a forced link between a character’s backstory and their skills – where did they learn to be a doctor? A priest? A martial arts expert?

Skilled Backstories: Why should you use them?

Often times in the modern conception of a narrative-based PC-centric RPG, the GM will lack the proper kind of entities to grab on to in order to create a dramatic situation that can spin you all off into hours of improvised fun. Traditionally this is solved by creating a backstory for the characters – a way to ground them in the reality of the world by giving them a past that can be called upon for adventure fodder. This particular method of creating a backstory based on the skills you want, or choosing skills based on the backstory you want, gives this kind of purchase for the GM to grab on to.

Furthermore, it also helps to resolve the “dropped into the world fully formed from the head of Zeus” problem that tends to afflict RPG characters. By showing how they arrived where they are today you have one of the more useful kinds of backstories – one that is relatively concise and to the point.

  • Grounds the characters in reality. You know how they got where they are.
  • Provides hooks for the GM to grab and use in crafting adventures. If you learn a skill chances are it was through contact with society in some way and not navel-gazing, which means whatever part of society the character contacted can show up for an encore performance.
  • Provides an opportunity for guest-starring or drawback implementation, as per the first two posts of this series.

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

This rule is pretty short and sweet – a couple of sentences saying where you got to be so darn proficient at something in trade for giving your character a history that the GM can use is the very definition of an affirmative to rules 2 and 3. In many cases, when running a PC-centric narrative RPG, this idea of locking the characters’ skills to their backstories works really well. I definitely recommend giving it a go if that’s the kind of game you want to run but the system you use doesn’t have an equivalent system available.

You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#4: Abstract Inventories
#5: All About Initiative

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #2: Drawbacks

This is the second of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Drawbacks: What are they?

Drawbacks are a mechanism taken from the FLOW system’s “STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game” based on the universe inspired by the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic (to date also including several video games and a widely acclaimed film), with other minor inspirations listed from literature, cinema, and video games as well.

In this iteration of the FLOW system, characters are created by taking competencies in ability areas (like Fitness or Intellect) through specific skills within those areas (like Strong or Journalist). Depending on how many of your 10 skill trainings you devote to each ability area you gain a rating in that area that is then used to help determine your success at actions. It’s not unlike if you put your training/skill points into your skills in D&D first, and then determined your ability scores as a function of how much training you held in the skills related to that ability score.

Each of the skills you have selected to have trained, however, is meant to be a competency you gained through real world experience and training, and every time you gain competency in a skill in real life you are giving up something else in order to have it. This is the core notion behind drawbacks.

A drawback is essentially the downside to having training in a given skill. If you’re a trained thief you probably have had some jail time, or perhaps as a cat burglar you’ve injured yourself and walk with a limp because of a failed escape. If you’re a journalist, as above, you may have all of the excellent benefits that brings (like a variety of informants), but you’ll also have made some enemies for the stories you’ve run, or have a rival from another magazine who constantly haunts you. Whatever they are they’re up to the players (implicitly with the approval of the GM, of course, but I’ve yet to see a player misbehave in terms of acquiring drawbacks without enough bite).

Drawbacks: Why should you use them?

Drawbacks solve a common issue that characters have, especially in modern D&D with point buy ability score systems – they’re just too perfect. The literary trope “Mary Sue” is often a term ascribed to a character that has no flaws, and if you look at games like modern D&D you’ll often find characters without many flaws, if any. While this serves the power fantasy that tabletop RPGs often try to give the player it often doesn’t seem to gel with a more modern conception of roleplaying tough problems and following a player/character driven narrative experience.

Drawbacks are here to fix all that. They offer a sense of groundedness for the character that will help to keep them from floating away by showing that for every advantage they have there was a price they had to pay. Here’s why Drawbacks are worth using:

  • Having guaranteed negative facets grounds characters in reality rather than falling prey to “Mary Sue-ism”.
  • They flesh out the character’s backstory in a meaningful way by telling us how they got to where they are today in terms of their fields of expertise.
  • They also flesh out the character’s backstory in a way that is useful for the GM: it gives you ways to get to the characters to spur them to action or to complicate their lives by providing all manner of foils.

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

Does this rule save characters from being Mary Sues? It does. Is the rule as simple as possible? It’s pretty simple, I can’t think of an easier way to go about it, although I can think of different ways to go about it (which will be the subject of future articles). Is the game better off with it than without it? This depends on the system you’re using and the game you’re running. I find that, at least in terms of modern D&D, it gives me a lot of leverage to run the kinds of stories a lot of people want to play. Other games can benefit too. It can flesh out Fate characters by attaching drawbacks to their skill pyramid, or any other skill-driven resolution system in a similar manner.

At the end of the day this rule is a good fit for any skill-based system where you want to give the characters a bit more groundedness and to get more leverage for running the game in a compelling way.

You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#3: Skilled Backstories
#4: Abstract Inventories
#5: All About Initiative

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #1: Co-Starring

Today I’ve decided to roll out my first new post to completion in more than 6 months. As the briefest of status updates I’ve had several posts simmering on the back-burner for a while now, but this is my first crack at a good series in a long time and they should be pretty regular updates. They’re also going to be a lot shorter than most of what I tend to write because I struggle with that and the practice of being concise is good for me.

What is this series about?

I’ve read a lot of RPGs. Even more than I’ve played or run, and I’ve played or run a lot of RPGs. One of the advantages to being widely-read is that you come upon ideas all the time. This is pretty usual advice given to a GM who wants to make more cool adventures: if you aren’t publishing the adventure feel free to steal the premise of a story you already know and love and just change the trimming a bit. The title of this post in fact is based on a much more pithily phrased piece of advice offered by the author T.S. Elliot – good authors borrow, great authors steal.

This advice, however, rings true not just for adventure design, but also for campaign mastery. There are some things that some games do that I’ve outright liberated from their respective works and continue to use in most games that I run regardless of what system I run them in. I’d like to go over as many of those as I can while pointing out their exact origins.

Co-Starring: What is it?

The Fate system was created many years ago as an offshoot of Fudge, and rests roughly in the smack center of crunch vs. fluff, GM vs. player narrative ownership, and improvisational vs. prep driven. As a system it’s given rise to one of my all-time favorite mechanics: co-starring.

The first example of this in the Fate game lineup that I can think of was created for Spirit of the Century and goes a little something like this –

  1. Most of the player characters have met before.
  2. Each player writes (most of) a short (paragraph length or so) story blurb about one of their previous adventures.
  3. Then one or more of the other players adds a sentence or two to that story that incorporates how they were involved, too.

That’s it. It’s a paragraph length cooperatively authored (very) short story about a previous adventure that involved at least two of the player characters. Simple, right?

Co-Starring: Why should you use it?

This method solves a common complaint that has existed as long as roleplaying games have: how do I get the player characters to join together in a way that feels natural? The oldest solution to this problem is “dump them in a tavern, say ‘go’, and hope they cooperate for the sake of the game”, but this is a much more elegant method. Here’s the breakdown of the goods –

  • As it’s a story it will have at least one antagonist if it’s done properly (and if it doesn’t you should be helping the player to create a more exciting story with more conflict!). It’s not only less work to use that (those) antagonist(s), but also you have less fear of player rejection since it’s their own creation. The same goes for any other established NPCs, antagonist or not!
  • The player characters will for the most part know each other already, which means they’re all at most a single “I know him and you can trust him” away from total group cohesion in a natural way once the game itself begins.
  • It’s short enough that even the most crunch-oriented players won’t mind giving it a go.

The House Rule Test

I have a very simple test I use for house rules. I ask three questions:

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

There are some overlap in those questions, of course, and the first one probably has the most precedence, but the other two are critical for making sure it’s the best house rule it can possibly be. In most cases of narrative-focused games, however, lifting this concept nails all three questions. It’s extremely short, taking at most 10 minutes for each one and being very easy to understand, and it definitely does what it set out to do: make the beginning of the game more natural than plopping a bunch of characters into a story as if they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus.

The only question that’s left, then, is if it benefits the particular game you’re playing. In most cases of a traditional PC-centric tale of high adventure I’d have to say it definitely does.

This is the first of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find further entries as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#4: Abstract Inventories
#5: All About Initiative

When to Throw in the Towel

Fear not, my few loyal readers (that I can only hope exist) and many passers-by, the towel isn’t about to be thrown in on this blog, but rather this is a post about when giving up on something you’ve designed is a better plan than not.

In coding projects there’s generally a tipping point for the more complex ones, and that tipping point is betwixt two goals: patching the code to fix a problem versus scrapping the code and doing a fundamental re-write. Writing projects of most varieties often work the same way, where eventually when you aren’t getting the result you want sometimes it’s just better to throw it all out and start over. What “all” means, though, can vary in a gaming context quite dramatically, from an entire campaign right down to a single problem. Like most people, I find that scrapping concepts is extremely hard once you’ve begun to invest energy in them. Psychologically, this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, and it results when people are willing to throw good money after bad because “not getting a result after investing so much already would mean the investment went to waste!” We can see this around us every day, from stock traders who won’t admit a stock is just going to keep going down and it would be better to jump ship while they can still make back a fair amount of their investment, even at a loss, all the way to wars where because lives have already been lost in pursuit of a goal more must be spent so those losses weren’t a meaningless mistake (note: I’m not referring to any war in particular here; I have no opinion on such current ongoing wars, but such things have definitely occured in the past at the very least). Yes, indeed, this even happens at the gaming table.

The most iconic example of this problem that I’ve encountered is an iconic example at all primarily because I was something of a third party, and so I could recognize the sucking black hole of a fallacy from the outside, rather than inside of its event horizon where it is much more difficult to detect. An acquaintance of mine had designed, for my use, a simple puzzle based on the premise of the characters of my RPG campaign at the time taking water from one basin, depositing it in the other basin, and thence from that basin back to the original, so causing the water of both basins to be mixed with that of their opposite. The problem here was that, besides one basin containing hot water and the other cold, there was absolutely no clue as to the fact that this might be the solution except the very most tenuous story link using information that the players were not yet aware of. In other words, it’s one of those “guess what the GM is thinking” puzzles. As I was running the puzzle I looked on in dissatisfaction at how hard a time the players were having, and after some minutes wasted with plans that came close by coincidence (mixing water from one into the other, but not the other into the first as well), eventually I simply recognized the puzzle for what it was – a bad one – and had to step back, break suspension of disbelief, and explain to the players that I had in fact gotten this one wrong and it was a stinker, sorry for wasting your time, let’s just skip right to the good bit where you’ve just solved it.

Had the puzzle been of my own devising I’d like to think I would have avoided the mistake in the first place, but, no matter what inflated opinion I may hold of myself, eventually we all screw up, even on things that we think we’re good at, not unlike rolling a natural 1 and getting a critical failure. Although the campaign I was running at the time was an open sandbox game centered on exploration, meaning the players could’ve taken off and gone elsewhere, ignoring the bad puzzle for what it was (a waste of time), I still took the time to note my error, explained to the players that I was sorry that one kind of sucked, and that I’d do better in the future, and then by way of making it up to them I gave them the solution and the swag that went with it (a powerful magic felling axe, which became the favored weapon of one of my most engaged and frequent players, along with a bit of cryptic exposition from a magic mouth).

The lesson in all of this? Don’t be afraid to give a serious critical eye to your own creations, and try to be very critical of when you have screwed the metaphorical pooch. What’s more, don’t be afraid to simply cut your losses rather than trying to endlessly patch the situation like a leaky boat. Remember that it becomes harder to be critical as things grow – a session is easier to cut short than a campaign – and that things of your own devising suffer an equally great clouding effect on your judgment. A lot of the time some creativity and elbow grease can salvage a bad situation and even turn it into a winner, but sometimes it’s better to just throw out your leaky boat and buy a new one instead of constantly buying rolls of duct tape.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM

An Update

Turns out I promised to turn out part 2 of my analysis of the Power Options available to, and the other statistics of, the monsters in D&D sometime last week, huh?

So… where is it? What gives Hydra DM, I thought you were cool!

Well, turns out that I spent a good chunk of time this week battling a system crippling string of invasive malware! Yay fun! While my computer remains operational, it unfortunately experienced some issues when it did things like, say, restart itself for no good reason. Such as losing all of my excel spreadsheet data that I was working on.

Ergo, the second part of that article may take up to another week’s worth of work to get out there. Sorry everybody!


The Hydra DM