Monthly Archives: April 2013

RPG Talk: Game Venues

Greetings readers, I’m compelled this week to discuss something near and dear to my heart: Gaming venues. One of the big factors in an RPG is the venue; where are you playing the game?
Yeah, this happens!
Most often, RPGs that I’ve been involved in have taken place in someone’s home. However, that hasn’t always been the case.
One thing I have learned, though, is a truism that I truly believe in: In order for an RPG venue to be successful, all participants need to feel comfortable and safe.
I’d like to talk about some of the other details and issues that often crop up about deciding on and maintaining a good gaming venue.

A Good Venue = Comfort & Safety

The header to this section really says it all, but I’ll explain a bit more; a gaming venue succeeds when the players all feel comfortable and safe.
This seems self-evident, but I myself have been in a lot of gaming venues where I felt uncomfortable or unsafe. First, let’s talk about comfort.

Comfort = Clean and Private

Comfortable settings are reasonably clean and private. For cleanliness, it doesn’t have to be immaculate, but if your house smells of pet urine or looks like an episode of Hoarders, there’s going to be a problem.
If your gaming table looks like this, you may have a problem.
For privacy, the key thing is having space where the game can go on without disturbing anyone else’s activities and where other people’s activities don’t disturb the game in progress.
A game can be private in a crowded game store; I know this because I’ve done it, several times. Game stores are often a great venue because there’s a reasonable expectation that you can have your game without bothering anyone else and everyone else isn’t going to interfere with your gang. 
However, this is not always true – CCG and Miniature game tournaments can take up all the available space and create so much noise that RPG games are nearly impossible to function.
I’ll give you a direct example of a non-private venue. I went over to a fellow gamer’s house to sit in on a game. I was considering joining this group and taking part in their campaign. The gaming venue was the living room, with a center table, plenty of room for gaming, and comfortable couches.
However, soon after we started, we discovered that the house actually belonged to the gamer’s parents. And those parents entered the adjacent dining room with grandchildren to have a family meal.
All of a sudden, the venue was no longer private – our gaming was obviously disturbing the family meal, and I personally felt very bad to interrupt that kind of interaction between grandchild and grandparent. I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and that experience killed that gaming venue for me entirely.


Let’s talk safety for a minute. The most common issues I’ve run into regarding safety in a gaming venue revolve around things like allergies to pets or specific foods. However, I have also seen some gaming venues that involve people who make threats of physical violence… I’ve even seen a guy shoot a loaded crossbow inside a gaming venue (ask me more about that sometime in person, I’ll be happy to tell the entire story).
Needless to say, using weapons, physical violence, and threats are completely unacceptable in a gaming context. 
Related to this idea is that gamer behavior affects the feeling of safety – and by behavior I mean everything from aggressive posturing (the so called “alpha-nerd” philosophy) to the use or prevalence of racial slurs and profanity. To be fair, these issues (including the violence mentioned above) have MUCH more to do with the group than with the venue. I mention them specifically in context with the venue because there are some venues that involve people who are not players or GM’s – significant others, parents, siblings, roommates, children, and so forth.
I’ll give another example here. I once went to try out a local gaming campaign and see if I was a good fit for the group. I found that there was a roommate of one of the gamers present in the venue who clearly wanted to be “the alpha nerd.” Any game-related discussions were quickly derailed by the roommate’s attitude. It was not a comfortable venue for gaming.
Moving on, safety is about more than just the inside of the venue – if the only way to get to the venue is through an abusive toll road (true story) or requires that you park in a war-zone like urban center and walk several blocks in pitch darkness to get there, your venue isn’t really safe.

Potential Venues

Sometimes it can be tough to find a reasonable venue within driving distance for everyone in your gaming group. When I lived in Maryland, driving 45 minutes to the game was reasonable for me, but I can definitely sympathize with those who prefer a game much closer to home. (Editor’s note: This is why I generally prefer to host!)
Here are some ideas of places you can look for as a place to hold your game:

A Gamer’s Home

This is the most common venue (at least, in my experience). A home offers a lot of advantages in terms of privacy, and generally parking is a lot easier!

Game Stores (as mentioned above)


College Student Unions

I spent tons of time during my college education at the student union. And most of the time, I was playing games. Good times, good times.

Military Barrack Break Rooms/USOs

If you have one of these, I am envious. And I want to game with you.
These options worked great for me when I was stationed at Fort Knox! Plenty of space, plenty of privacy.

Business Break Rooms

This may seem a surprising choice, but there are some gamers who have this option, and it can be pretty awesome in the right hands. One of my friends in Minnesota happened to work at a bookbindery, and he made the business break room available to us after hours. It was a great venue for gaming. Similarly, I played at the offices of a video game company in Louisville when I lived there as well.


Some libraries offer meeting rooms that can be used during the library’s business hours. I’ve never had to do this myself but I do know that it is an option.

In Conclusion

I hope this blog entry has been helpful for thinking about your next gaming venue – and I hope that we can all agree to respect the need for comfort and safety for ourselves as players.

Building Character

Greetings readers – this has been a busy month. I’ve been working on a new RPG setting with two friends and colleagues, Jason Marker and John Dunn. In addition, I wrapped up design work on the Shadowrun skirmish miniatures game, Sprawl Gangers. I started some freelance RPG development work. Lastly, I did some additional writing for my own projects and made some additional freelance contacts. So yeah, lots of stuff going on.
This week I wanted to talk about building characters for RPGs. I’ve made more than a few characters in my career as a gamer – over 27 years at this point – so I believe I have some good perspective on the subject.

Step 1: What am I bringing to the table?

I need a “Blog Writing +1” skill.
The first thing that goes through my mind when I am building a character for an RPG is my desire to identify a unique role for my character in the group. Sometimes the concept itself comes first (i.e., “I want to play a swordmaster!”), but more often, I take a look around and see if the group I’m playing with has some strong inclinations towards a particular character type.
For me, I don’t want to end up stepping on another player’s toes. This can happen less often with a role and more often with a concept.Two characters with the same role can often find a way to make it work – all it takes is a bit of a different emphasis, a slightly different spin, or something of the sort.
For example, I recently made a character for a Shadowrun game, and I discovered that another player had created a very similar character in the same role. I had built a melee-focused combat character (a troll), and my friend had built a ranged-combat specialist who was also a troll. Two trolls can end up looking a lot alike in other circumstances. However, our characters found ways to emphasize the differences between us and the game is going really well. My friend focuses on his heavy weapons and I focus on being an awesome swordsman – we can back each other up, but we’re not copies!
As I said above, however, similar concepts are harder to reconcile. When it comes to an RPG, a character’s “concept” is often more than just the basic idea of who or what he is; it also encompasses the abilities and mechanics that character uses to interface with the game’s challenges.
Several years ago, I was in a Deadlands RPG game in Louisville, Kentucky. I made a character who was a riverboat gambler, an experienced man of the West with a swift gun, a hot temper, and an intimidating mien. What I didn’t know is that my good friend George had come to the table with his own character (somewhat based on Jonah Hex) – and his character had all those same traits. Although we started in different places, we had made two characters that were stylistically and mechanically very much alike. Needless to say, this pleased neither of us!
As always, communication is the key – I make sure to talk to the GM and talk to the group so that hopefully we can iron out any misunderstandings before the game begins.

Step 2: Identify the Character

There are a lot of things that make up a character’s identity. There’s the concept, of course – that original idea that defines who and what he is – and there’s the role the character plays in the group. 
Lots of different characters here!

However, identity doesn’t stop there. A character’s identity also has a lot to do with the mechanics of the character’s abilities, his role in the story, and the way that the character interfaces with the game.

Sometimes it is the character’s tools and abilities that make up his identity. In fantasy games, for example, the character’s choice of weapon can define him greatly – a barbarian with a two-handed axe is a very different warrior from the cunning elf wielding two daggers. In the Star Wars universe, Han Solo is well-known for his skill with his blaster pistol, while Luke and his lightsaber are rarely far apart.
One thing that is a bit unusual but can be a lot of fun is to maintain some mystery about your character’s abilities – “full disclosure” is the norm (at least in my experience…), but keeping some secrets can lead to some excellent moments in the game (caveat: this approach works best with the right group). A good example is my friend Bryant Smith’s Dungeons & Dragons character. He always was careful to simply describe his character’s appearance – a tall, helmed warrior wielding a unique-looking crossbow – and let everyone guess as to his character’s race and class. This was quite difficult, because the character exhibited several spells, excellent fighting ability, and even some thief skills. After literally years of having people make incorrect guesses, it was revealed that his character was in fact a female drow under the helmet – thus explaining some of the spells – and caused quite a stir!

Editor’s Note: I’m adding Bryant’s own comments here, because I think they’ve got some good advice in them:

ah yes…my Bounty Hunter Mandrill. I based that character on Kevin Kline in the Wild Wild West, Cadderly from the Cleric Quintet, and Boba Fett. Honorable yet severe, never coming out of the armor in the presence of the party (Fett), with the Gadgetry of Kline and Cadderly. It was always fun to work with the GM to come up with solutions to inventions I would need to mimic items found in Mandalorian armor. I seem to remember you being shocked most of all when the reveal finally came. lol.

I tended to build my characters off of a mood I wanted to play, and then figure out what best fit that in class. Sir Brennan, the fallen paladin, is an example that comes to mind. I wanted to play a fighter, a rather simple class when you really get down to it…however, I had recently watched Dragonheart, and thought Bowen, played by Dennis Quaid, was a very well thought out flawed character. So I made a drunkard that had fallen from the grace of the Storm Lord…and what better accent to have than an Irishman?

When approaching my templates for how I wanted something to play, I would seek inspiration from a flaw that I thought was interesting. It was either a weakness inherent in a race, or something that would tend to balance out my uncanny ability to see how numbers sometimes would work to make an awesome character class, but without the flaw, they would become a faceless arch type, forgotten soon after playing.

Govannon Tahl’aer ath Ghillie Sidhe would be a good example of that. Two things made him memorable to me: His honor driven by guilt at what he had done while a member of the Hunt of the Elves, and his naiveté of the human duality. I remember some of the most fun I had with him was missing a willpower check when confronted with the evil of humans and going into a homicidal rage, (something quite deadly to behold when a Blade Singer does that). Although, out of all the times I donned that role, the thing that has made me laugh the hardest was his very first battle upon introduction to the party. The look on your face when I said “I close my eyes.”, made my blindfighting check with ease, and rolled 4 crits out of 5 while facing the dracolich that had cast “mirror image” was, simply put, priceless.

My advice to someone looking to break the mold on their characters is to pick a favorite movie, then pick their favorite character and think about what it is that makes him or her interesting, and run with it. The class is just dice rolling and math…the personality is what makes them memorable.”

Of course, understanding the character’s background is another important step for feeling unique at the table. I definitely recommend that people choose something relatively simple and broad as a base from which to build the rest of that history – the “elevator pitch” of the character’s background. My character Ramien Meltides took part in the Messian Campaign thatI mentioned in another post, and her “elevator pitch” went like this: Ramien was raised as a farmgirl on a large rural plot of land, amongst apple orchards and log cabins.
From that one sentence, I can build a lot of details about Ramien’s past, and that foundation can become a touchstone for anytime that background could be relevant (such as bonuses to certain skill checks).
One more set of thoughts about this subject involves finding the skills and abilities that excite you the most.
For me, I have found that I enjoy characters more if I make sure to tag certain abilities that I enjoy using in the game and emphasize those on the character sheet.
For example, one of the most common checks you’ll make at any given RPG session is one for perception; noticing things. I found that I really enjoyed succeeding at these kinds of tests – and not just succeeding, but achieving large degrees of success. I found that I really like “having the eyes of a hawk” because I enjoyed getting more details about the setting for the game or any particular thing inside the game that I found interesting.
One of my favorite game systems is the Hero System – it allows me to make exactly the kind of character I want in great detail. However, early on, I was having a lot of trouble with the game – I was trying to fit my concept into the amount of points the game gave me, and I ended up spending those points in ways that would give my character a lot of options. Being a “jack of all trades” is fine, but I was lacking the depth in the things I really liked. Once I sat down and really examined which abilities I liked the most and concentrated on those, I enjoyed my character a lot more.

Step 3: Finishing Touches

With a unique role in the game and a good idea of the character’s identity, the next step for me is finishing him off! I look for three things to try and set the character apart; an image, a voice, and a connection with the other characters.
Decisions, decisions.

Finding an image is often as easy as browsing Google Images; sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle (superheroes are the most challenging for me), but I find this to be a good way to find at least something I can show the other players. If I don’t have access to the image, I just want to make sure I have an image in my head that I can use to describe my character to the other players with a decent level of detail.

Finding the character’s voice doesn’t always mean a funny accent. Sometimes that is appropriate (You should hear my Russian accent I used for my character Dmitri…), but more often, a character’s voice is about his word choice. Does he use big words? Small ones? Does he speak like an educated man or does he talk like a laborer? It can be something as simple as a particular catch phrase or an unusual laugh.
Finding a connection with other characters is something I need to work on more – lately, I’ve been falling back on making a character in a vacuum (although Shadowrun doesn’t really encourage building bridges between characters before the campaign). However, I do think these connections can be really important. I love developing these connections during play.
A good example of connections is Doc Holliday from the film Tombstone. Doc is a flawed, complex man who lives each day as if it might be his last – because he’s very sick and, in fact, dying. Somehow, this hedonistic, educated man made friends with one of the few people to ever look at him as something greater than he thought he was – and that man was Wyatt Earp. Doc devotes himself to Wyatt. Wherever Wyatt is, whatever Wyatt is doing, Doc is along for the ride, no questions asked. Because Doc knows that Wyatt has a strong moral compass, something that he himself lacks.
That is a great connection to have. A few years ago, I played in a Fantasy Hero campaign in Maryland. Early on, it became clear that our group was making characters revolving around a kind and virtous knight, Sir Patris (played by my good friend Stephen Furlani). I had already decided that I wanted to play an assassin, but my cover was that of a cook. I decided that my character respected Patris so much that he did not /want/ to reveal his profession, and took great pains to accompany Sir Patris and assist in his quests without ever letting slip his true abilities. It was a great challenge and added a lot to my character’s part in the story.

In Conclusion

I recommend that you take a close look at how you create characters for your RPG games – are there some things you always do? Are there some things you’ve wanted to do, but haven’t tried yet? Is it time to try something new, to break out of the rut? Or do you have an old favorite you’re itching to bring back?

Interview Time: Ed Stark

Greetings readers! This week I have another special interview with a luminary of the gaming industry: Ed Stark. Ed has an amazing pedigree as a game designer, having worked at West End Games, TSR, and Wizards of the Coast amongst many others.

The man, the myth, the legend: Ed Stark

I first became aware of Ed’s work while playing the Star Wars D6 System from West End back in the early 90’s (plus TORG, which I owned but did not play — see my review for more information).

Later on, I found one of my favorite RPG settings of all time, Birthright (which I have also reviewed here on the Warden). Ed had a lot to do with that setting, having developed and written for several books in the game line for TSR.

My first chance to meet Ed in person occurred Winter Fantasy 2001, an RPGA-focused game convention held in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Since I was living at the time not far away in Louisville, some friends of mine and I made the trip up to attend the convention.

Honestly, we did not know what to expect at Winter Fantasy; we’d never attended an RPGA-centered event before and we hadn’t signed up beforehand for any particular games. Our plan was to simply show up, check things out, and get in on some open gaming that (we assumed) would be going on at the same time.

Well, it turned out that Winter Fantasy doesn’t really have a lot of open gaming — I didn’t actually find any! In addition, since 99% of the attendees had signed up for RPGA games in advance, there wasn’t much of anything going on when the games were in session.

This worked out to my advantage, however — Winter Fantasy was hosting several special guests that year, including Monte Cook and Ed Stark.

Because all the other gamers were playing in their RPGA events, the guests of honor were basically sitting around by themselves over near the dealer’s area. My friends and I thought this was a real shame, so we went over and introduced ourselves.

What happened next was magical. We got to sit down and chat about games with Monte Cook and Ed Stark, face-to-face, by ourselves, for about three hours. That’s an opportunity that many gamers would kill for!

During this conversation, I talked to Ed about my desire and passion to write for RPGs and get into the industry. Ed listened and gave me some excellent advice. “If you want to write for RPGs,” he told me, “Just get out there and do it. I believe you can.”

From that moment, I moved forward as a writer and I credit my subsequent success in my career to that conversation.

Ed and I kept in touch over the years afterwards, and I always considered him my mentor.

In 2011, Ed contacted me about a position at Vigil Games in Austin Texas, working with him as writers on the Warhammer 40,000 MMO, Dark Millennium Online. I didn’t need to think about it very long — this was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Ed at Gen Con in 2001 — check out that awesome dungeon!

Working with Ed on DMO was exceptionally instructive. I learned a ton about writing for games in general and working in the video game industry specifically. Having helped me find my way as a writer into two different industries, I consider Ed to be a supremely valued friend, colleague, and mentor.

Ed is now working at Zenimax Online as a Content Developer for the exciting new MMO, Elder Scrolls Online. He was gracious to answer some questions about his history in the RPG business for my blog — and there was absolutely no way I was going to pass up a chance to pick his brain about Birthright — and I’m very excited to present his answers below!

As always, my questions are in Red.

General Questions

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

One of Ed’s early projects, and a kick-ass sci-fi setting.

ES: It’s funny. I’ve been writing RPG material since I was a teenager, but I never really thought about getting published until I was in graduate school (English/Education) and was working three jobs to help pay for it (my parents helped out, too, but grad school isn’t cheap). I wrote a few freelance articles and then my future father-in-law saw an ad in a newspaper for an editorial position at West End Games. I interviewed for the position but was still in school, so they didn’t hire me. But six months later, after I graduated, they called me back and I became an RPG editor. Within a few months, I was also the lead designer at WEG (it was a very small company), as well as line editor for the Paranoia RPG.

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?

ES: The freedom to be creative. Yes, most companies have established lines and, especially if you’re starting out, want you to right for their material and their style. But people have no idea how much more creative freedom you get in the RPG industry than in other publishing fields. After a few years of success, you can be a decision-maker in the RPG field, where that could take several years or even decades in other publishing or entertainment industries.

RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?

ES: This isn’t unique to the RPG industry, but volatility. If you want to keep working in the field, you’ve got to be lucky and adaptable. I know folks who’ve been at the same job for a decade … and others who’ve had to bounce around every couple of years. I guess “resilient” is a better term than adaptable. You have to set goals and work toward them, even if that means changing where you live or what you’re doing.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 20 years?

ES: That word “professional” is a big one. When I started in the industry, it was little more than a hobby that made money. It’s still a hobby, or some would say “cottage” industry, but there are definitely companies and people out there who want to make it a successful business. Some go about it the right way … whereas I worry when I see people getting too “business-like.” The best companies retain their hobby feel and atmosphere but develop management and brand sense.

RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?

One of the books from my personal favorite edition of D&D. Great job, Ed!

ES: As a freelancer, ask questions about your assignment, communicate REGULARLY (note the all-caps), and hit your deadlines. If you can’t hit your deadline, communicate this EARLY (again, all caps) with a clear plan for how you’ll make up the time. Treat your freelance job much as you would an office job–set aside time each day for it, and commit to getting a certain amount of top-quality work done every day. You may have another job (many freelancers do), but don’t use that as excuse for letting your freelance slide.

As a publisher, encourage freelancers to ask questions, communicate REGULARLY with your freelancers (hmm … suspicious re-use of all caps), and hit YOUR deadlines (as in, payments, updates, etc.). Yeah, a publisher is more likely to get away with not paying a freelancer on time than a freelancer is with missing a few deadlines, but is that really the kind of reputation you want to develop? I have a short list of companies I’ll never write for (should I get back into doing freelancer again) unless I hear about significant improvements along that line … and I have current freelance friends who feel the same way.

Whenever possible, both parties need to act like they’re on the other side of the coin … because, really, they are. Freelancers depend on publishers for work and payment. Publishers depend on freelancers for quality material so they can sell it. Why screw up that relationship? Both parties need to plan ahead. If you can’t get the work done, don’t accept the project. If you can’t pay for the project, don’t assign it.

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

ES: I’d like publishers to work together more to grow the industry. Yes, it’s a bit of a fantasy (I’ve seen it when publishers get together in a room …), but the RPG industry isn’t huge. There have to be ways to grow it. I’ve heard the phrase “a high tide floats all boats.” Well, it’s true. I don’t have a silver bullet for making this happen, but if some smart publishers and freelancers got together and talking about growing the industry … and then actually acted on it … that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?

ES: Not as much as I’d like. Since moving to the computer gaming field, I haven’t been doing as much of this as I did in the past. I used to go to at least three or four conventions a year, and I was a regular on various company and gaming message boards. I always maintained an active online presence and was very candid with my opinions … though I was also good about telling people when I couldn’t talk about something.

I do miss having more regular communication with fans of my work, but it’s been awhile since I’ve published, so there you go. 🙂

Star Wars D6 has a well-deserved reputation as a great RPG.

RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?

ES: Participating in the development and release of D&D Third Edition and v.3.5. Being the Creative Director for D&D during those processes was a challenge–and a very different one each time–but I look back on that experience very positively. I very much enjoyed working with the people who actually wrote, edited, and provided artwork for those books, and I hope I made their experiences on the team better by my involvement.

RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?

ES: Oddly enough, my first job. When I was at West End Games, I was given a lot of responsibility, very fast. I didn’t make the most of the opportunity to learn, and I developed some bad habits as a designer that I had to work my way through. Like I said before, we were a very small company, so there wasn’t any sort of “backstop.” I very much appreciate the start WEG gave me, but if I could go back and do some of that over again, I’d love the opportunity.

That said, I’m very proud of my time at West End Games and still look back on many of those projects with fondness.

RW: If you were a space explorer, you’d be a…?

ES: Long way from here. Seriously, if I were an explorer, I’d be part of a small group, traveling to every new star and planet. I think my life as a designer shows that. I’ve lived all over the country, with the only real constant being my wife, Jill. Oh, she’d have to be a space explorer, too, to make this work.

RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?

ES: Who’s GMing? That’s the big question. If I’m DMing this instant, it’s either D&D 3.5 or MERP. If I’m playing and get to select the Game Master (a very key component of this question), it could be Villains & Vigilantes, Savage Worlds (thanks, Ross), Call of Cthuhlu, or any number of games. I’ve been in so many exciting and entertaining games over the years, I think more about who GMed the game than what we actually played.

RW: Shatterzone, Birthright, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Paranoia, Alternity, TORG, Star Wars D6… 3rd AND 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons – you have a ton of accomplishments in the gaming industry. If you could return to one of the games you’ve worked on in the past and create something new for it, which one would it be?

ES: Very tough question. I immediately think about things I’d fix, but that’s not really the question. I honestly felt we created everything for D&D that I really wanted to create (not to say there isn’t room for expansion), and I’d love to do a few fixes for Shatterzone and Masterbook, but if I had a blank check to create anything, I’d probably go with D&D 3.5. I’d spent a ton of time putting together a crazy super-adventure with a ridiculous number of props, hand-outs, and maps (not drawn by me, but by some of the guys who used to do the old TSR maps … even though we just lost one of the best, Dennis Kauth). It’d be one of those adventures designed to be run over several sessions, but that some people would sit down and play until they couldn’t stay awake anymore.

Birthright Questions

Pirates, monsters, nothing but adventure in Brechtur!

RW: Birthright is a unique and distinct setting that I think has been greatly underappreciated (despite its Origins award). You had a huge impact on the setting as a designer and developer – how do you feel about the setting 20 years later?

ES: Frankly, I think it was a terrific setting that was a bit too front-loaded. The concepts of playing a king (or a regent of another sort) and the rules for running kingdoms as an adventurer were terrific, but I think we overwhelmed players new to the campaign with all that information. I would very much like to see a more “progressive” Birthright game, where the players earned their way to kingship somewhere early on in their careers. All the best BR games I’ve run or played have worked that way, where the players developed their royal natures as part of the first few adventures, over weeks or months, so as to get totally immersed in the setting before they felt they had to “rule” it.

RW: During the playtesting for Birthright, what were the most interesting outcomes? Were there any particularly noteworthy or amusing situations that occurred while testing the setting or the domain rules?

ES: Well, when I came to TSR, the boxed set was still being playtested, but much of it was ready to go. I remember playing in a test of the Domain Rules with Roger Moore (he was the Creative Director of the Worlds group at the time) where we pretty much ruled Anuire and created a pretty massive clash of kingdoms over the course of a few playtests.

But then I asked, “so, how long does a domain turn last?” “One month,” he replied. “And how many turns have we played so far?” I followed up, innocently. “Looks like about thirty.” So, nearly three years into our playtest “campaign” and things were really only heating up. Politics can take a long time …

RW: You also designed the setting for the Havens of the Great Bay and the Tribes of the Heartless Waste, two significant portions of the main Birthright world. The realm of Muden is obviously one of your favorites – did you have any other particularly exciting realms or regions that you find particularly memorable?

ES: Yes … though most of it never got published. I was spearheading the development of both the Shadow World and Aduria, the great southern continent. The Shadow World was very much patterned after the idea of the Celtic Unseelie Realm and as the home of the Cold Rider, a terrifying place. And halflings, who were natives of the Shadow World who’s fled where pretty scary, too.

Aduria was going to be a sort of “lost continent” setting, with very ancient remnants of fallen empires, sort of South American but without the Incan/Mayan/Aztec influence (that was Menzoberranzan). I was really looking forward to taking players into both realms, where they’d have to forge their own kingdoms from nothing.

RW: The Raven is one of the most interesting and unusual Awnsheghlien, and you could say his presence tends to dominate much of Vasgaard. Is there any thing you can tell us about the Raven’s nature or his eventual plans?

ES: Oh, it’s been so many years … Forgive me if I make a few errors of memory. As I recall, the Raven used his power of possession to take over a realm and then openly declared himself as one of the Lost, the disciples of Azrai. I always saw the Raven as unrepentantly evil, but also the symbol of what a lot of what other peoples think of the Vos–brutal, terrifying, and cruel. But the Raven sacrificed his humanity and the nobility the Vos can possess when he became a disciple of Azrai. In a way, he stands as a great contrast to what people think the “heartless tribes” are and what they actually can be.

The lands of Vosgaard and an awesome place to adventure.

RW: The elven realm of Tuar Annwyn is exceptionally mysterious and unlike any of the other elven realms in Birthright – can you tell us more about what was going on with that place?

ES: Using another Tolkien reference, I see Tuar Annwyn as a bit of a cross between a darker, more dangerous Lothlorien and something out of the Seelie realm of Faerie. I don’t know that I’d establish that direct a connection, but I do see Tuar Annwyn as straddling both worlds and trying to survive against the conflicts of both.

RW: If there was ever a way to bring Birthright back in some official form for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, would you want to get involved?

ES: If there were the opportunity, and I was free (I’m pretty busy right now at ZeniMax), sure, I would. I’d like to work with some of the old crew again in particular, and I could see a revised version really being something that could find a home among modern players. A lot of us watch Game of Thrones, and while Green Ronin is doing an excellent job with the RPG, I could see a higher-magic, D&D version carving out its own niche.

I would definitely focus more on the roleplaying and the world, using adventuring to fuel domain turns and regency. The key to a good Birthright game is getting the players involved in the world and invested in it … and then trying to tear it apart while they hold it together.

RPG Design: Game Balance

Greetings, readers – this week I want to talk about a hot topic in the modern marketplace for RPGs: Game Balance. Fair warning! This is a somewhat controversial topic and is no doubt going to cause disagreements.
Game balance is a term that can mean a number of things, depending on whom you ask. There’s a movement amongst some critical gamers that believes game balance lies in the mathematics and mechanics of the game. Others say that game balance is a factor that combines spotlight time at the table (the number of “opportunities for awesome” that come up for each player during a given session). Still others say that game balance is largely up to the GM alone, regarding his enforcement of the rules.
It’s important for me to note here that several designers I know personally have declared that RPG game balance is, at best, a “myth.” I’m going to examine the issue from my own perspective in today’s post.
As always, the opinions and thoughts presented here are my own from my personal experiences. YMMV.

Ross’s Definition of Game Design

I’m going to start off with my own, personal definition of Game Balance for RPGs:
To me, game balance means this: Each character archetype has a niche they can fill to significantly mechanically interface with the game; a unique contribution only they can make.
The term “significant mechanical interface” may sound familiar if you’ve read my Hack Factor blog entry about the classes for 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons. What it means is a way for the character to meaningfully contribute to moving the game forward using his character’s abilities in a way that works with the game’s mechanics (whatever those mechanics may be, from using a D&D Feat to a Shadowrun Quality to a Dark Heresy Talent or anything else of a similar nature).
Also, the term “unique” shouldn’t be taken as an absolute; what I’m really trying to get at is that most groups are composed of varying archetypes. Rarely will you see a group with more than one of any particular character “type,” (such as Fighters, Clerics, Energy-Projector superheroes, Street Samurai, etc.). Therefore, I’m assuming that most groups feature exactly such a varied lineup and thus there’s going to be opportunities for unique approaches that would otherwise simply be “uncommon” (if, for example, your party consists of multiple Rogues, Sorcerers, Street Shamans, Brick Superheroes, and so forth).
So as you can see, my definition of game design leans heavily towards the experience of the players – the “fun factor” of the game. If the game offers each player equal opportunities to do awesome things, that’s what I would consider a balanced game. Roleplaying Games try to address this approach in several different ways; Dungeons & Dragons and the 40K Roleplay systems use class-and-level systems that encourage players to take on structured roles in the group. More freeform games like Shadowrun and Savage Worlds use “archetypes” that are less strict than classes but still steer players towards fitting into particular niches.

Game Balance and Math

As I mentioned above, there is a design approach that, in my view, worships at the altar of math. This approach defines RPG game balance as an absolute mechanical balance; each character does the same average damage per turn, attacks the same number of times, or achieves an absolute average number of successes in any given task.
In the interests of full disclosure, I rarely find games fun that are produced from this particular design approach.
My experiences with math-oriented design have rarely been positive; I’ve witnessed designers debating whether or not a particular ability is unbalanced because it succeeds roughly 12% more often than other abilities in the same category. I’ve seen designers defend designs that make the game less fun by insisting that the rule only comes into play 18% of the time on average. I’ve seen designers place every character design into theoretical “thunderdomes” to ensure that each type can defeat the others on a 50/50 basis. This is not to say that some of these issues aren’t legitimate concerns for the game; they are. My point is that the amount of time, effort, and passion spent on tweaking the game’s math was far out of proportion (in my opinion) to the effort spent making sure the game was fun to play in the first place.
In my eyes, perhaps the most disappointing result of this approach is a game where all the characters end up doing almost the exact same thing during the game, and I can think of no better example of this than 4thedition Dungeons & Dragons. The performance of 4th edition D&D in the marketplace (currently third for sales behind Pathfinder at #1 and Edge of the Empire at #2) and its critical reception from gamers is the best evidence I can point to as to the relative success and popularity of its design.
To me, absolute mechanical balance is a great ideal to strive for, but is ultimately less important than the game’s “fun factor.” I will absolutely sacrifice mathematical balance if that sacrifice makes the game more fun.
As a small side note, mechanical game balance is far more important (and taken far more seriously by myself) in games without a roleplaying component, such as card games and miniature games. In those environments, making the math work just right takes higher priority. However, I stand by my approach as outlined above.
Here’s a short list of games that I feel has striven very hard for attaining absolute mathematical balance (to varying degrees of success).

  • 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons 
  • GURPS 
  • Hero System

Often, a game’s complexity has a significant effect on its mechanical balance, or the perception thereof. Rules-light games may appear balanced at first, but there’s no guarantee that a rules-light system is any different (keeping in mind my personal definition of game balance) based on its design.

Perfect Imbalance

There’s a concept in video gaming called “Perfect Imbalance.” It is best described by this Extra Credits clip. The short version is that there is a game design approach where one archetype option (in RPG’s, this would be a player character archetype) is slightly more attractive on a mechanical level. This an intentional choice, because the design approach builds in later improvements to other archetype options that, in turn, make them more attractive mechanically in a cycle. Similar to a “rock-paper-scissors” approach, perfect imbalance means that players stay invested and engaged with the game by always having something fresh to look forward to, even though it may appear on the outside that the players are dissatisfied with the perceived imbalance.
Perfect Imbalance is a design approach that fits very well into the life cycle of an RPG line, where supplements and sourcebooks introduce new options and features that temporarily make certain character types more attractive until the next book in the cycle is produced. When the “fighter book” is released, fighters look mechanically more attractive; when the “cleric book” comes out, the same can be said for clerics. The key is to make sure that the options remain viable and – most especially—relevant throughout the cycle.

Addressing Imbalance

Looking back at my gaming experiences over 25+ years, I’ve concluded that many of my favorite RPGs have a great deal of imbalance built into their designs, intentional or not. Ultimately, I prefer a game that is fun and immersive over one that is perfectly balanced. I think that possibly the best way to address any balance issues in a game is, first and foremost, an awareness of the problem. If the GM knows what the balance issues are (such as the significant advantages full casters have in a 3.0 or 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons game, or the advantages magicians have in a Shadowrun 4thedition game), then he can adjust the types of challenges he provides. Often, many problems of balance can be simply addressed by a group’s social contract before the game begins. It can be as simple as an agreement that a Star Wars RPG campaign should be either “All-Jedi” or “No-Jedi.”

In Closing

Is there such a thing as a perfectly balanced game? I honestly don’t know – and my personal design philosophy means I probably won’t ever find out. My approach has always been “don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good.’”
At the end of the day, I am satisfied and fulfilled if I have produced a game that is “good.” Quality is important to me, but I consider perfection to be an ideal that – while worth pursuing – is ultimately going to lead only to disappointment, unacceptable delays, and interference with producing additional quality content.
I’m planning to revisit this concept in the future, maybe for a part 2 and a part 3, looking at some intentionally imbalanced games such as Ars Magica, Rogue Trader, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Embrace the Crazy

It’s been a year already?

Greetings readers, and welcome to the one-year anniversary of Rogue Warden. I started this blog one year ago, and it’s nice to look back and see how it has gone. How did I do? I wrote 41 posts in one year, which is 11 posts short of one per week (my original goal). Room for growth next year! Still, I feel that Rogue Warden had a great start; I interviewed some great figures in the industry, wrote some fun posts about games and gaming, and reviewed some of my favorite games of all time.

What do you have to look forward to in year 2 of the Warden? Well, I plan on doing more interviews, more game reviews, more thoughts on professionalism in gaming, more discussion of gaming tropes, more how-tos, and more of my thoughts on gaming in general.
Enough about the past and the future, let’s stick to the present – today’s blog post revolves around a concept I like to call “Embrace the Crazy.”
Back in my discussion of Mohawks vs. Mirrorshades I touched briefly on the style of game that exemplifies “crazy awesome;” that is to say, over-the-top, unrealistic, action-packed stories where the rule of cool is paramount.
Jut to be clear, there is a paramount difference between something that is plan crazy – i.e., silly, nonsensical, and unengaging – and something that is crazy /awesome/ — i.e., exciting, action-packed, and memorable.
And just recently, I watched a film that really made me think about the idea of crazy awesome and the rule of cool, and how embracing those concepts can lead to a certain wild entertainment.

Spoilers Ahead

Just in case you haven’t watched the movie yet, this blog has some spoilers – and basically, a small review – for GI JOE Retaliation.
This is my childhood…

It should be noted that I hold the hate of a thousand suns for GI JOE: Rise of Cobra. I felt (and still feel) it was a terrible, terrible, completely unfulfilling film. So I was understandably quite skeptical about going to see the sequel. And at first, I felt the same – sneering at the cliché’d dialogue and setups, laughing at the ridiculous settings. But slowly, my attitude changed. There’s a scene with ninjas fighting each other on grappling hooks and ziplines on a mountaintop, and it /should/ be stupidly bad. But it wasn’t – there was an undeniable sense of commitment to that scene from everyone involved. You could just tell that the guys making the movie believed in this scene, in the movie as a whole. And I started to get into it.

After about fifteen minutes, I was actually laughing with delight rather than derision, because the film knew it was nuts and was actually embracing that. In turn, I began to embrace the ridiculous use of exposition, the unashamedly over-the-top action, the crazy vehicles that came right out of the cartoon – this movie actually grabbed me by the lapels and made me like it. There are RPGs out that that do the same thing.

How to Embrace the Crazy in an RPG

I’d like to say a few words here about how to bring the rule of cool and crazy-go-nuts into your RPGs. As always, these bits of advice are from my own personal experience, and all groups are different… so remember, YMMV.

Get the Players on Board

Yeah. It’s kind of like that.

Embracing the crazy is not for everyone – I happen to know several groups who love the opportunity to cut loose with some insane moves, and I know several groups who would definitely prefer other styles of play. The key is to find players who will find crazy awesome/rule of cool gaming enjoyable. I find that most fans of Hong Kong action cinema are a fertile ground for gamers who like this approach!

Set The Tone

Tone is super-important when you’re running or participating in an embrace-the-crazy RPG. While cutting loose can be great fun, taking things too far or in the wrong direction can be a mood-killer. So my advice is to take a strong stand at the beginning and set the tone of your game – get everyone on board with the feel you’re trying to evoke and the style you want to showcase, and the game will run much smoother.

Go for the Gold

Don’t hold back! Losing restraint is a process that takes a while, so let it be organic – I would even recommend starting out with something normal and then letting the crazy ramp up over time. This is not to say that starting the game out totally batshit insane can’t work – it can – but that’s not my personal style.

Nothing is Sacred

Aside from the “setting the tone” advice above, a big part of embrace-the-crazy roleplay is to just let go of the part of your brain that demands things make sense. My own brain was shouted down during the ninjas-on-the-mountain scene in GI JOE: Retaliation, and that’s the feeling this style of play needs to recapture; it’s okay for things to not make sense, it’s okay to celebrate style over substance, it’s totally okay to try and pull of stunts that would never, ever work in any other style of gaming.

RPGs that Embrace the Crazy

Let’s be clear; all RPGs have the capacity (in the right hands) for crazy awesome things to happen. However, some are more suited to an embrace-the-crazy style than others!

Feng Shui

A representation of Hong Kong action cinema in RPG form, Feng Shui lends itself very well to crazy awesome games. Rule of cool is practically a religion for Feng Shui, and if you’re not trying to make everything as awesome as possible, you’re not doing it right.


You totally CAN.

Exalted practically built its reputation as a game where over-the-top awesomeness is built in. The game’s focus on playing as godlike beings, incredible action stunts, and holy-crap-you-can-do-what? abilities earn it a place on this list.

Star Wars

I had a great GM back in my Army days who ran an extremely unusual Star Wars (West End D6) game – it was highly adversarial, but also highly entertaining. This was the game where I first began embracing the crazy and learning to love when a game gets a little out of control in a good way.


The gonzo setting of Rifts is another RPG that nearly demands fun, over-the-top action. Now, Rifts is such a wide and varied setting that it can support multiple styles of play—but when I think of Rifts, the most appealing part to me is trying to play it in an embrace-the-crazy style (for more on this approach, see the Rifts sourcebook Juicer Uprising).


Happiness is mandatory, and some craziness nearly always ensues. Paranoia is an RPG that many folks prefer to play in a gonzo, lets-all-be-crazy style, and the game’s artwork and text tend to support that approach.


Much like Rifts, the kitchen-sink approach of TORG has some applications to crazy awesome games, particularly in the Nile Empire. See my review of TORG for more details.


For more information on this, see my previous discussion on Mohawks vs. Mirrorshades.

Sidenote: Mohawks adventures

Back in September, I pitched Catalyst Game Labs a series of adventures in the over-the-top, embrace the crazy style. In fact, I wanted to call this line of adventures “Mohawks,” as they would embrace telling stories that you don’t often see in many more mainstream- or mirrorshades-oriented Shadowrun games. My ideas were threefold:

Mohawk 1: All Elves Go to Heaven

In this adventure, the Shadowrunners are hired by a Mafioso to escort his daughter on her metaplanar quest to become an initiate mage. Journeying to the metaplanes has been done in Shadowrun adventures before, but only when there are huge stakes (Harlequin and Harlequin’s Back being examples). So metaplanar quests are fairly uncommon in Shadowrun but a really cool thing to do, because it allows you to bring in distinctly non-shadowrun themes and events to see how your Shadowrunners react. I actually wrote this adventure and used it as a 4-hour convention game at Genghis Con 2013, and it went over really well.

Mohawk 2: Send in the Trolls

Is this ever bad advice?

Mohawk 2 and 3 are mostly just concepts right now, so I’ll put down some of my main ideas – just don’t get the wrong idea, these are very much works in progress! Send in the Trolls features an all-troll party facing some unusual challenges for that particular metatype (social encounters, maybe a journey into a matrix game to rescue a rich corp kid who is trapped there as an e-ghost, more social encounters in high-class environments, plenty of opportunities for hilarity with an all-Troll group).

Mohawk 3: Only a Ninja Can Kill a Ninja

See above for my enjoyment of the ninja scenes from GI JOE – there’s a lot of coolness still present for the concept of supernaturally-skilled shadow warriors from the far East. This adventure would, of course, revolve around a ninja clan seeking revenge against another, and the runners get caught in the middle. I would probably try and fit in as many crazy and ridiculously cool locations for swordfights into this adventure – an under-construction skyscraper, a gondola over a canyon, a planetarium, that kind of thing.

Hmm. Obviously, next week I need to take a look at toning things down a notch, maybe focus on grittier, lower-level campaigns. Sounds like a good idea to me;  see you then!