Category Archives: Thinkpieces

Keith Baker, Phoenix: Dawn Command, and the New Frontier of RPG Design

Phoenix: Dawn Command

The following article was originally posted by the author on The Mad Adventurers Society, and is reprinted here with permission. You can find the original here.

When I initially received an email from game designer Keith Baker, I was astounded. Not only is Baker the creator of the Eberron setting for Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the designer of the narrative card game Gloom, but he had also just launched a Kickstarter for his latest game, Phoenix: Dawn Command. I knew he’d be swamped with promoting his Kickstarter, and I am a nobody blogger who got his attention on Twitter and sent him a 750-word email for his trouble. I was working on a story about a growing trend of what I have dubbed “prop-based” RPGs: games that use proprietary elements, such as special dice, unique tokens, or, in Baker’s case, cards. I wanted to know what was behind this trend; in a matter of months, we’ve seen Kickstarters for games that use proprietary decks of cards, like FAITH, Neon Sanctum, and Phoenix: Dawn Command, and there has to be a reason that designers are focusing on cards.

I still haven’t answered that question to my satisfaction, but Keith is such an insightful designer that I’ve spent the past couple weeks reexamining my own beliefs and principles when it comes to game design, specifically around conflict resolution. I’ve previously written about why the rules exist (spoiler: it’s to justify killing the characters when the players don’t want them to die.) Around these parts, MAS’s own dynamic duo, Sammy and Fiddleback, took a run at randomness and PC death on episode 65 the Potelbat podcast back in September (spoiler: everyone hates randomness.) As both a player and gamemaster, I am very much of the crunchy system mastery/optimization persuasion. I have spent hours poring over rulebooks precisely to understand and mitigate the randomness of die rolls in order to assure my character is reliably good at whatever it is he’s supposed to be good at, his “One Cool Thing,” if you will.

I’ve played dozens of different systems using a variety of mechanics: d20s, percentiles, dice pools, FUDGE dice, and whatever you want to call Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars dice. I’ve dismissed some for being to high variance—“swingy” like 40k RPGs—and some for being too low—“curved” like FATE and Dungeon World. Maybe what I’ve been looking for all along isn’t the right mathematical outcome curve of dice blended with the right measure of static modifiers and properly turned target numbers. Maybe what I really want is a slight preview of the next die roll. Maybe what I want is actually cards.

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The Future of Virtual Tabletop: Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, and D&D 5E

Fantasy Grounds D&D 5E Core PHB: Class Info

Screenshot from Fantasy Grounds D&D Complete Core Class Pack

The following article was originally posted by the author on The Mad Adventurers Society, and is reprinted here with permission. You can find the original here.

Virtual tabletops—applications designed to replicate the in-person roleplaying experience for remote players—are a big deal for the future of the gaming industry. For players, it’s a way to play more games more often, as there’s no longer a need to be physically present in order to play. For publishers, it’s a chance to increase exposure to their games and further monetize their products. Some companies, like Evil Hat and Pinnacle Entertainment Group—publishers of FATE and Savage Worlds, respectively—have fully embraced digital content and make their core materials readily available on popular platforms like Fantasy Grounds. Other companies, like Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast, have been markedly slower to embrace technology.

There’s a convoluted history complicating Wizards’ path forward. With D&D Third Edition, the Open Gaming License made it easy for third-party applications to support the system, including virtual tabletops. Because of more tightly controlled licensing for its Fourth Edition, D&D 4E included a subscription-based rules compendium and character builder called D&D Insider, which, like D&D 4E in general, received a mixed reception from fans. The side effect was a severe limitation on support for virtual tabletops, which couldn’t integrate the 4E ruleset into their offerings. With D&D Fifth Edition, Wizards initially adopted yet another strategy: they partnered with digital textbook developer Trapdoor Technologies to develop a hybrid rules compendium/character builder/connected-at-the-table app called DungeonScape. The demos of DungeonScape won over many skeptics, but in the midst of a public beta test, Wizards of the Coast announced that it had terminated the project. Trapdoor tried to salvage the platform sans D&D 5E licensed content with a Kickstarter campaign in December, but fell more than $350,000 short of their funding goal. The licensing strategy of D&D 5E, and with it both its digital future and the future of virtual tabletop, was yet again in limbo.

That is, until last week. On April 8th, Wizards of the Coast and virtual tabletop app Fantasy Grounds announced the release of licensed D&D 5E content on the Fantasy Grounds platform. All of the rules content of the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual, along with additional tokens and portraits, are now available . The content is pricey: $49.99 each for the full PHB or MM content (or subdivided into thematic sets ranging from $2.99 to $5.99) and $19.99 for The Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure from the Starter Set. Right now, though, Fantasy Grounds is the only place for players to get any D&D 5E content, period.

Depending on whom you ask, this news is either a great step forward for Wizards and D&D, or it’s an overpriced disaster. I’ll reserve judgment until I can actually use the modules, but either way, it’s sure to send shockwaves through the virtual tabletop landscape.

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Breaking Down Roll20’s Orr Group Industry Report for Q1 of 2015

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Orr Group Industry Report Q1 2015 Summary

The following article was originally posted by the author on The Mad Adventurers Society, and is reprinted here with permission. You can find the original here.

The Orr Group, the analytics arm of popular virtual tabletop app Roll20, has released its Industry Report for the first quarter of 2015. This is the third installment of the report, and as we’ve previously discussed, this is still a very noisy set of data. Don’t put much faith into the numbers, but the directional data is useful for showing trends.

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Crowdfunding Is Good for Gamers


The following article was originally posted by the author on The Mad Adventurers Society, and is reprinted here with permission. You can find the original here.

Last week, my colleague Nick Watanabe wrote a thinkpiece critical of crowdfunding (read: Kickstarter) in the gaming industry. Nick is a smart guy with a business background, and you should read his argument in his own words. In case you didn’t, I’ll offer a summary: Nick thinks crowdfunding is usually a crutch, and notes the litany of complaints from angry supporters whose funded projects never delivered. He questions whether crowdfunding is good for companies, good for gamers, or good for the industry. He also identifies specific adverse behaviors: serial crowdfunding (crowdfunding campaigns for each project or product), escalating funding goals (pledge level rewards and stretch goals), loss-leader pricing (“taking a loss” on the campaign), and a general lack of accountability (disclosure of how funds are allocated and actually used.)

Nick has some fair points. Lots of people (NPR’s All Things Considered, CNET, and even the Wall Street Journal) have noted the lack of accountability and transparency for Kickstarter, and while I suspect it’s far worse amongst video game developers, tabletop games certainly aren’t immune. The hypocrisy he cites—companies who criticize crowdfunding before they launch their own campaigns—is also worthy of criticism, though I suppose I’m not connected to the right circles to know of any specific examples. These behaviors are obviously unethical, but not unique to crowdfunding. I’m here to talk about Nick’s problems specific to crowdfunding.

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