Vow of Honor additional comment

Eep! I left out something significant! Vow of Honor does give some pages to playing non-Arbiter characters. Instead of Honor Dice and the Tenet of Honor, these characters have Motivation Dice and your pick of ten Motivations: Acceptance, Curiosity, Family, Independence, Order, Power, Love, Socialization, Safety, and Vengeance. Each provides a special maneuver. In the case of Curiosity, for instance, you can spend Motivation Dice “to discover something interesting, dangerous, or pertinent to your current objectives.”

Your character earns an impediment mark when there’s a serious obstacle to their ability to act on their motivations, and a bolstered mark when they get to act in a way that fulfills a motivation. Where Arbiters accumulate checks in their exercise of the Tenets of Honor to advance, non-Arbiters accumulate impediment and bolstered marks—any combination of ten total in their two motivations enables an advance.

Skills, talents, and the rest of the system work the same way.

Vow of Honor additional comment

Vow of Honor, by Ben Dutter

Vow of Honor is a digest-sized roleplaying game, available from DriveThruRPG in hardcover and softcover print versions (usually $45 and $25, $40 and $20 as I write this) and PDF (usually $12, currently $10). It’s written by Ben Dutter, edited by Joshua Yearsley, has layout and graphic design by Philip Gessert, and includes art by Markus Lovadina, Lee Che, Winston Lew, and Stephen Garrett Rusk. It’s 260 pages long, with chapter-level bookmarks (and additional depth in the odds-and-ends material at the back).

This is a lovely game both physically and in its contents. It’s gorgeous, with great page design, illustrations that are simple but rich and appealing in both black and white and color, beautiful typography, the whole deal. And it’s another of those relatively rare games that’s very strongly about people doing the right thing in the midst of difficult situations.

The Setting

The player characters in Vow of Honor are Arbiters, members of the Order of Fasann, an institution apart from any local government or other authority dedicated to applying its tenets of honor—compassion, commitment, purity, righteousness, and understanding—to help the people around them. They live on, or rather in, Sasara, which is…not exactly a world.

Vow of Honor is set in the distant future. Sasara is a manufactured place, built as the crowning glory of humanity’s spacefaring days, now long passed. People live in Sasara’s interior, where the horizon rises gently in the distance and the skies have constantly shifting, glowing clouds instead of sun or stars. The civilization of Sasara’s builders has long since gone, and, as the game explains:

The majority of Sasarans live along the Spine; a strip of land roughly 2,000 kilometers wide, stretching away north to south. It is here where crops can grow and trees can be felled, and its climate is tranquil enough to be tolerable.

To the distant east and west lie the Void Lands. There, strange plants flourish, and glassy craters fill its fields and forests; twisted obelisks of unknown materials stand silent vigil, and evil energies and caustic gases fill the air. Brave explorers have attempted to conquer the Void Lands many times, but not one has succeeded.

In the nifty tradition of a bunch of good far-future settings, including Tekumel in the RPG world, the people of Sasara are on the far side of a whole lot of intermingling, and show it. They’re pretty much all tan to dark-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, and no contemporary ethnicity has survived. (I do think the game misses an opportunity here to cultivate a wide-ranging diversity of uncommon appearances. Convergence of features does happen, but so does fresh radiation out into new combinations.)

Life is hard on Sasara for most people most of the time. It’s simply not feasible to maintain a lot of industrialization—unlike some big artificial structures like the Ringworld or Rama, it has miles of earth and rock, but the mineral concentrations aren’t there and the infrastructure that industry takes isn’t there even if they were. So there’s room for local innovation, but overall, life continues in seldom-changing broad strokes. People make the moral compromises and transgressions that survival on the margins requires, and there’s seldom the physical, mental, or social free space in which to dream of things going better. The mysterious Forebears are long gone, strange things fill the world wherever people can’t keep up a constant guard, and that’s just how it is.

Into this situation comes the Order of Fasann, and the player characters.

The Order’s members commit themselves to advancing the cause of Honor, defined with five tenets: commitment, compassion, purity (including freedom from physical, mental, and spiritual corruption, and seeking the best possible from oneself and others), righteousness (the pursuit of what is just, good, and noble), and understanding. The Order’s many Enclaves train promising teens and young adults (and sometimes older people in the wake of life changes) to seek out and respond to Dishonor, the negation of these tenets, and to help the people and lands around them.

The Order’s vision of Honor is all-encompassing: it’s equally appropriate for Arbiters to deal with blighted, infertile farms and pastures, with monsters haunting ruins and roads people need to use, with civic corruption, and with family strife. Cruelty, infidelity to one’s commitments, dishonesty, hate mongering, and ignorance are all aspects of Dishonor, all deserving of Arbiters’ efforts to cure them.

There’s a lot of supporting detail for all of this, which I’m eliding so that I don’t end up just copying the whole game. It’s kinda tempting, though: Vow of Honor is rich in well-chosen, useful details. Take the section on settlements:

A typical Sasaran settlement is extremely well fortified, well masoned, and very small. Sasara’s violent weather precludes working with weak materials, and the bloodthirsty beasts and demons stalking its wilds ensure that any settlement intended to last will build a high and powerful wall.

Most Sasaran cities are several days’ journey away from one another, enabling them to pull upon large areas of wilderness and natural resources without starving or constantly going to war. Several settlements have grown into seats of power, defendable against any invader, surrounded by lush and fertile lands, with well-built walls and edifices.

However, many other towns and villages aren’t so lucky. It isn’t uncommon for you, as an Arbiter, to travel to a town you’ve known for several years to be prosperous, only to arrive and find it burnt to the ground, or destroyed under a new basin of water—or, worse, you discover that its population was forced into slavery, or savaged or eaten by adabhuta.

Well-established settlements and cities invariably have an Enclave. Many have a Church of Creation, a place of congregation for those who believe in the holy omnipotence of the Creators.

In a simple view, most Sasaran cities are similar to Earth’s cities from the fourteenth to fifteenth century in southern and eastern Europe, northern Africa, the Indus River Valley, and the Middle East: their structures are built with stone, clay, brick, columns, tiles, and mosaics. Most are masterfully crafted, and some are accented with scavenged materials and technology from Forebear ruins. The wealthiest and most powerful Sasarans often build decadent and powerful castles and palaces, well stocked with the relics of the previous age.

Like I said: useful. In just a few paragraphs, we get historical references, a sense of stable norms and common kinds of threat to them, some ideas about what would constitute a bad situation that locals would like to fix, the whole deal. It goes like that throughout, on each subject from clothing to exotic creatures from future lineages.

The Pedagogy

That is to say, the theory and practice of teaching as Dutter’s carried it out in Vow of Honor. I said in Google+ comments as I was reading that I wanted to talk about this particular topic, and I still do.

Vow of Honor is a little weaker than I’d like in infrastructure, if that’s the word I want. There’s no index, and the table of contents and bookmarks have only chapter-level entries. But it’s still quite easy to find particular topics and their substance. Every single section gets a recap: boxed text with a border and color that set it very strongly off from the main body of the book, which summarizes the most important points. Game terms get repeated to build familiarity, and descriptions are expressed in slightly different terms than they were in the preceding exposition. You can flip through a chapter, just looking at those, and very quickly get to the thing you’re looking for.

It’s a basic principle of teaching: tell your students what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them, and tell them what you told them. Among other things, game books very much are works of instruction, conveying information that includes both data and views about the data. But, to put it mildly, a lot of gaming authors aren’t especially good at putting their info out in ways that work with how people actually learn things. Dutter’s recaps do the job as well as any game book I can ever recall reading.

If you’re interested in good instruction via game book, Vow of Honor is worth a look even if the setting and system don’t do much for you.

The Spirit of the Game

I love it when a game offers up rules that work very well for the particular setting it presents and that also cover a whole spread of other related cases. I find myself a little short for useful terminology here, because it’s not exactly a matter of genre but of a specific approach to a kind of challenge that can occur in many genres. The Arbiters are people committed to doing a broad spectrum of good deeds in the midst of a difficult world. Their moral challenges aren’t really much different from the one Raymond Chandler proposes in “The Simple Art of Murder”:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Look at the Tenets of Honor the Arbiters swear to uphold: Compassion. Commitment. Purity. Righteousness. Understanding. All there.

All of which is to say that as a rules system, Vow of Honor would work fine in milieus other than the fascinating default of Sasara.

The Game

Vow of Honor uses a straightforward d6 dice pool system. You roll one or more d6s, and see whether each is a success depending on your character’s relevant skill level—if they’re just barely trained at all, only 6s are successes, while if they’re exemplary in that skill, 3-6s are all successes. Complications ensue, of course. 🙂

Each character has ratings in eight skills: Awareness, Coordination, Influence, Knowledge, Logic, Might, Resistance, and Stealth. The rating in each is Poor (6+ to succeed on a roll), Average (5-6 to succeed), Good (4-6 to succeed), or Exemplary (3-6). There’s a standard skill array—one exemplary, one good, five average, one poor—and some alternatives in the book for different mixes of focus and diversity in aptitude. You also pick a talent, a special thing your character is good at that cuts across the standard skill lines and gives you a bonus die to roll when it applies; examples in the book include Smooth Talker and Tracker.

Challenges, whether tasks to perform or enemies to overcome, come with Difficulty, Threshold, and Severity. Difficulty is the number of successes you need to roll to win. Threshold is a property of long, ongoing challenges: when you roll that many successes, the difficulty goes down by 1. If a test is Difficulty 3, Threshold 2, for instance, it takes a total of 9 successes to beat: 3 to reduce it to Difficulty 3, Threshold 1, 3 more to reduce it to Difficulty 3, Threshold 0, and then 3 more to beat what’s left of it. Severity is the enemy’s skill level: your character has to earn that many successes with whatever means of resistance they’re using. It’s also the level of harm  your character faces for failing. The details depend on the kind of challenge, with guidelines for level and duration of injury, short- and long-term penalties to affected skills, and so on.

(Vow of Honor is one of the games where only the players roll. What would otherwise be the GM rolling for NPCs’ efforts is handled by players rolling to resist enemy Severity.)

Your character has a pool of Honor Dice, or HD, which you can spend for bonuses on individual rolls. Unsurprisingly, they earn HD by acting in accord with the tenets of honor, and lose them by acting dishonorably. You usually spend HD in a straightforward “I’m also rolling this die” way, and aiming for successes with the threshold set by your character’s skill level for that particular challenge. But it’s possible to get more out of an HD.

In addition to their skills and starting talent, your character begins play oathsworn to two of the five tenets of honor. Each tenet you choose gives your character a pick from two benefits. If they’re oathsworn to Understanding, for instance, you can decided whether HD they spend on efforts to learn, understand, empathize, or deduce provide automatic successes, or whether they can spend an HD to automatically know the difficulty, threshold, and severity for a particular task or enemy.

Character advancement depends on upholding the whole spectrum of honor. When your character’s upheld each of the five tenets in a notable, significant way, they earn an advance, which you can spend to improve a skill or to add or improve a talent. Acting significantly against any of the tenet costs your character HD, and three major violations make your character stained with regard to that tenet. It takes an act of significant sacrifice to remove the stain and recover the ability to make further progress.

I could go on—it’s a good system—but there is a quick start document, so I’ll settle for linking to that. It’s not just that it’s a solid, simple but very flexible system, but that the book shows how to use it in a  whole bunch of different ways, with generous discussion of examples and possibilities, and keeping it all very much a coherent whole.


I really like this game and am really looking forward to putting it to play.

Vow of Honor, by Ben Dutter

Bruce and the DMG, Part 5: Chapter 1, Third Part

Today I shift into higher gear to take a quick…stop laughing, out there…okay, quicker look at more topics in the “A World of Your Own” chapter.

Mapping Your Campaign

A single page, starting with an explanation of what sorts of features show on scales from 1 mile per hex to 60 miles per hex. It's got good advice on things like natural routes for rivers and what density of settlement goes with what general vibe of civilization versus wasteland.


Most of six pages here. It starts with a discussion of placing and developing settlements, and I am so happy to see it continuing with the awareness of what this is all for:

A settlement exists primarily to facilitate the story and fun of your campaign. Other than that, the settlement's purpose determines the amount of detail you put into it. Create only the features of a settlement that you'll know you'll need, along with notes on general features. Then allow the place to grow organically as the adventurers interact with more and more of it, keeping notes on new places you invent.

Like a lot of DMs of my vintage, I spent a lot of time early on in basically fruitless and misplaced efforts at simulation. These all had loads of unexamined assumptions about what was being simulated, and did very little to ever enhance fun in play. Here, on the other hand, is a discussion of settlement purposes that includes local color, home base, and adventure site. This is very much better for the kind of fantasy adventuring I wanted then and still like now.

The remarks on settlements at various scales of size are heavy on practicality: who's in charge overall, who collects the taxes, who provides defense, how and where does commerce take place, and so on. This is the kind of thing I could look at when improvising a village, or town, or city, and feel confident I wasn't overlooking any relevant fundamentals.

Likewise with atmosphere, something that's near and dear to my heart. It's about the senses, something which early RPGs often attended to only patchily. But characters exist in an environment, with stuff coming in on all sensory channels. It's good to think about, and as this discussion emphasizes, can set a lot of tone with very little direct exposition.

Government gets a page and a half. It's less engaging to me, but then that's me not being especially enthusiastic about feudal social arrangements. I know they're traditional for D&D and it's perfectly sensible to focus on them; I just would rather have seen more on both classical and late medieval/early Renaissance models, particularly where there are wildly different forms of government existing cheek by jowl.

Commerce and currency get brief but useful coverage, and currency includes really nice artwork of coins and explicit discussion of how to use varying regional currencies for color without bogging down in endless exchange rate tables and such. As throughout this book, existing D&D settings – in this particular case, the Forgotten Realms – provide handy examples. I'm impressed at the sustained juggling act involved here, never suggesting that by golly everyone's gotta do it this way while promoting an awareness of neat stuff you could also buy and use from Wizards.

Languages and Dialects

It's short, but it's to the point, and offers up nice options, including some I tend not to think of when thinking about D&D. So…it works.

Factions and Organizations

Two and a half pages here, and one of the places where the legacy of game design from the late '80s through '90s shows to best effect – this is not something you'd see, I think, without the benefit of seeing what's worked with template systems like West End's Star Wars and Shadowrun and splat systems like White Wolf's:

Temples, guilds, orders, secret societies, and colleges are important forces in the social order of any civilization. Their influence might stretch across multiple towns and cities, with or without a similarly wide-ranging political authority. Organizations can play an important part in the lives of player characters, becoming their patrons, allies, or enemies just like individual nonplayer characters. When characters join these organizations, they become part of something larger than themselves, which can give their adventures a context in the wider world.

We get the Harpers and Zhentarim as handy worked examples, and really nice concise guidelines on creating new organizations. Symbols, names, and slogans get attention here, with a good discussion of how important such compact expressions of a faction's nature (as it is, or as it might wish to be, or as it once was) are in play.

There's an optional system for renown within a faction, with five tiers of status (illustrated with ranks for the Harpers, the Zhentarim, and three other Realms groups). It's straightforward, and it doesn't seem like it would make all groups feel structured too much the same given the variety in what those ranks can mean and do. There's also an interesting riff on those rules to track piety in game worlds with active gods. And given that example, I can see how it could adapt to other kinds of status within allegiance, too.

Magic in Your World

I'm just going to say again how much I like the “you” and “yours” in this book.

This is a page and change covering things you'd want to consider in building your setting, including various riffs for schools of magic and resurrection, and the role of teleportation circles.

That's it for this time. Next post, Creating a Campaign and Campaign Events, which I shall enthuse about at length.


Bruce and the DMG, Part 5: Chapter 1, Third Part

Bruce and the DMG, Part 4: Chapter 1, second part

Today I'm going to write about gasp four pages, instead of one or three! Today's section is Gods of Your World, and here again is some very nifty stuff.

The Player's Handbook establishes clerical domains. Each one gives the cleric committed to it some spells to know that don't count against their regular spell limits, a distinctive use for the Channel Divinity ability all clerics get at 2nd level, and a variety of other special abilities. The Trickery domain, for instance, gives the cleric:

  • Bonus spells including Charm Person and Disguise Self at 1st level, through Blink, Dimension, and Polymorph (among others), up to Dominate Person and Modify Memory at 9th.
  • At 1st level, the ability to touch a willing target and give it advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks for the next hour.
  • At 2nd level, the ability to use Channel Divinity to create an illusory duplicate, and among other things to cast spells as if the cleric were standing where the illusion is right now. At 17th level, this grows to four duplicates, not just one.
  • At 6th level, the ability to use it to become invisible for a turn.
  • At 8th level, the ability to infuse their weapon with a poison given as a gift by the deity and do extra damage.

The other domains – Knowledge, Life, Nature, War, and so on – are all comparably nifty for their areas of interest.

The DMG discussion of gods leads off with the Dawn War deities, the default from 4th edition. And I want to take a moment here to say something about that.

I was really put off by some of the promotion for 5th edition, which I felt did altogether unearned slagging on 4th, pandering to the noisy part of the fan base that really hated 4e (and often had no idea what it was talking about). That dislike is the largest element in my not having really looked at 5e until just recently – I felt annoyed and offended at seeing the work of, among others, good friends abused so vigorously. And yet in the actual books, there are all kinds of entirely friendly, respectful nods to the preceding edition, right alongside ones to all the others. I am at least as happy with the books in this regard as I was unhappy with their promotion.

Now, to discussion. As with the overall nature of the world, the book establishes a default assumption, Loose Pantheons:

Most D&D worlds have a loose pantheon of gods. A multitude of deities rule the various aspects of existence, variously cooperating with and competing against one another to administer the affairs of the universe. People gather in public shrines to worship gods of life and wisdom, or meet in hidden places to venerate gods of deception or destruction.

And this:

People in most D&D worlds are polytheistic, honoring deites of their own and acknowledging pantheons of other cultures. Individuals pay homage to various gods, regardless of alignment. In the Forgotten Realms, a person might propitiate Umberlee before setting out to sea, join a communal feast to celebrate Chauntea at harvest time, and pray to Malar before going hunting.

Some individuals feel a calling to a particular deity's service and claim that god as a patron. Particularly devoted individuals become priests by setting up a shrine or helping to staff a holy site. Much more rarely, those who feel such a calling become clerics or paladins, invested with the responsibility of true divine power.

One of the classic complaints about early D&D was that it was a very Midwestern Protestant sort of polytheism. 🙂 Here, in simple, useful language, 5e explains what routine polytheistic life is like, and adds coolness to clerics and paladins by explain how distinctive their way of life is. This is great stuff! So's this:

This pantheon draws in several nonhuman deities and establishes them as universal gods. […] Humans worship Moradin and Corellon as gods of their respective portfolios, rather than as racial deities.

I'm not up on all the evolution of D&D, but that's certainly a take I haven't seen before in D&D. Another concise statement that opens up a whole spectrum of possibilities. Coolness!

Next comes a subsection on other religious sytems: tight pantheons, mystery cults, monotheism, dualism, animism, and forces and philosophies. Each gets well defined, in terms that lead right to gaming explanations. I could keep quoting and quoting, but there has to be a line somewhere, and this is it.

Finally, there's a subsection on Humanoids and the Gods. It lays out the reasonable default that humans tend toward more religious variety than the other races, and that in particular a bunch of races have (or at least think they have) a unique, distinct creator god, who anchors the rest of their religious activity. But having explained that, it goes on to ask the DM interesting questions:

With that in mind, consider the role of the gods in your world and their ties to different humanoid races. Does each race have a creator god? How does that god shape that race's culture? Are other folk free of such divine ties and free to worship as they wish? Has a race turned against the god that created it? Has a new race appeared, created by a god within the past few years?

A deity might also have ties to a kingdom, noble line, or other cultural institution. With the death of the emperor, a new ruler might be selected by divine portents sent by the deity who protected the empire in its earliest days. In such a land, the worship of other gods might be outlawed or tightly controlled.

Finally, consider the difference between gods who are tied to specific humanoid races and gods with more diverse followers. Do the races with their own pantheons enjoy a place of privilege in your world, with the gods taking an active role in their affairs? Are the other races ignored by the gods, or are those races the deciding factor that can tilt the balance of power in favor of one god or another?

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to go out and create a zillion more settings.

Bruce and the DMG, Part 4: Chapter 1, second part

Bruce and the DMG, Part 3: Chapter 1, first part

I'm not going to do this kind of super-close reading all the way through. At least I don't think I am. Mostly it'll apply to passages of particular importance, that set the foundation for the rest of the work. I have a lot more to say about philosophy of gaming and principles of play than about the details of encumbrance, for instance.

That said, Chapter 1, “A World of Your Own”, opens with some fascinating stuff I do want to read closely. So here we go!

Your world is the setting for your campaign, the place where adventures happen. Even if you use an existing setting, such as the Forgotten Realms, it becomes yours as you set your adventures there, create characters to inhabit it, and make changes to it over the course of your campaign. This chapter is all about building your world and then creating a campaign to take place in it.

I like every part of that paragraph. It repeats the theme already established, and enthused about here, about how every campaign's world becomes its own in play. I continue to think this is true, and important to remind DMs of.

The first section heading is The Big Picture, and the next page or two is what really, truly sold me on 5e. What we get here is a review of the core assumptions of D&D for this edition, each with a paragraph of commentary: Gods oversee the world. Much of the world is untamed. The world is ancient. Conflict shapes the world's history. The world is magical. Here's their style:

The world is ancient. Empires rise and fall, leaving few places that have not been touched by imperial grandeur or decay. War, time, and natural forces eventually claim the mortal world, leaving it rich in places of adventure and mystery. Ancient civilizations and their knowledge survive in legends, magic items, and their ruins. Chaos and evil often follow an empire's collapse.

Matching these is a set of possibilities under the subheading It's Your World. They include: The world is a mundane place. The world is new. The world is known. Monsters are uncommon. Magic is everywhere. Gods inhabit the land, or are entirely absent. Here's the last of those:

Gods inhabit the land, or are entirely absent. What if the gods regularly walk the earth? What if the characters can challenge them and seize their power? Or what if the gods are remote, and even angles never make contact with mortals? In the Dark Sun setting, the gods are extremely distant – perhaps nonexistent – and cleric rely instead on elemental power for their magic.

This is a very confident, self-aware piece of writing. Its creators know what they want, and are aware that they're making choices from among a range of possibilities for each chosen emphasis, and are comfortable encouraging DMs to make their own choices. They keep tying various options back to existing D&D settings, too, which is good for awareness of all the various flavors of D&D as parts of a greater whole, and helpful to DMs wondering something like, “Hmm, what should I do to give my game a feeling like that?”

The expository tone and style continue to impress me, too. I'm reminded of something Justin Achilli wrote in instructions to authors for one of his Vampire: The Masquerade projects, to the effect of, “Don't make readers jump through hoops to understand what you mean. They've already proven they're cool enough by buying the book.” This is straightforward writing, which is an entirely different thing from stupid writing. Useful simplicity takes just as much work – sometimes a lot more, really – than useful complexity.

Next up will be the discussion of gods and religions, which continues the trend of most excellent utility.


Bruce and the DMG, Part 3: Chapter 1, first part

Bruce and the DMG, Part 2: The Introduction

The DMG’s introduction comes after a credit’s page and table of contents. I’ll come back to them, but this three-page section lays out a grand plan for the book and says something that I want to give prominent space to up front.

First of all, here as throughout both this volume and the Player’s Handbook, the game talks very directly to the reader:

It’s good to be the Dungeon Master! Not only do you get to tell fantastic stories about heroes, villains, monsters, and magic, but you also get to create the world in which these stories live. Whether you’re running a D&D game already or you think it’s something you want to try, this book is for you.

(I’ll probably come back to assumptions and declarations about the roles of participants in D&D games later, possibly in a separate post. It’s easy for me to come across way grumpier than I intend when writing about some of the game creators’ world’s discussion of these things, so it’ll take more pondering to do right.)

I am profoundly impressed at how much this edition lives up to early promises of supporting a wide range of play styles, preferences, and needs. We begin with an explanation of adventures and campaigns, and the discussion suggests that a great single-session adventure and a great years-long campaign are both worthwhile. It expands on the thought:

Inventing, writing, storytelling, improvising, acting, refereeing – every DM handles these roles differently, and you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. It helps to remember that Dungeons & Dragons is a hobby, and being the DM should be fun. Focus on the aspects you enjoy and downplay the rest. For example, if you don’t like creating your own adventures, you can use published ones. You can also lean on the other players to help you with rules mastery and world-building.

It’s hard to describe just how much of a radical advance this is over the state of roleplaying game writing back when I discovered it in the ’70s. The early norm was a hodge-podge of would-be textbook detached narrative, would-be Vancian or Dunsanian flights of fancy, and a lot of just plain not very good prose. And it was like pulling teeth sometimes to persuade game writers that they ought to talk directly to their players, rather than couching everything in passive-voiced distancing. Heck, the argument about second person’s superiority over third for the kind of instructional writing rulebooks are was still a live issue when I started writing commercially in the ’90s, with long heated denunciations of anyone who dared to get so “casual” as to deal directly with the audience.

In some ways that was part and parcel of the larger struggle to get games written by people willing to admit that they were writing rules for a game, and that this was supposed to be enjoyable, but that it takes collaboration to make it work. Early editions of D&D and other games were loaded with multiple layers of kludge that could have been cleared up with the simple directive, “Talk with players about what you want out of this, and what they like and don’t about play.” There were whole racks of monsters that existed purely to punish players being too thorough or insufficient thorough or incorrectly thorough in their search descriptions, that could have been cleared up with a few sentences from the DM like “Let’s talk about how much game time and effort we want to dedicate to standard searching, and what level of caution seems fun for everyone.” And so forth and so on. There’s a frequently frustrated mid-teens gamer in me who relaxes at reading passages like the one quoted above, and at all they imply.

The introduction divides this book into three parts: Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules. Each gets a few paragraphs of overview. A couple highlights:

Every DM is the creator of his or her own campaign world. Whether you invent a world, adapt a world from a favorite movie or novel, or use a published setting for the D&D game, you make that world your own over the course of a campaign.

That’s entirely true, and something that it’s sometimes difficult to persuade gamers of. Certainly we had problems in White Wolf games convincing readers that we didn’t just want them to make whatever stock elements they used their own, but that we saw it as an inevitability, that their own chronicles would necessarily become their own. It’s true of every production of a play or performance of a work of music, and gaming has the potential for much deeper alteration and customization than many kinds of creative effort.

Also, there’ve always been vocal contingents of gamers who like to loudly insist that using someone else’s resources of setting, plot, etc., condemns a game group to inferior status. It makes me happy to see all the various possibilities treated with equal dignity as creators.

As a referee, the DM acts as a mediator between the rules and the players. A player tells the DM what he or she wants to do, and the DM tells the player whether it is successful or not, in some cases asking the player to make a die roll to determine success.

“Mediator between the rules and the players”….that works for me, for sure. I’ve sometimes said that I think of published rules as input into the game that the group creates in its play, and 5e seems to share the same general outlook. (When I write about the credits, I’ll have some to say about individual and collective authorship; for now, know that I generally like to refer to what the game says as opposed to what some particular author says, particularly in multi-author efforts, because the end result is a distinctive thing of its own. Sometimes I make an exception when I do know just who wrote which part, sometimes not.)

The last page of the introduction, Know Your Players, gets at something I think is crucially important, and does so in a very understated way. It discusses things players like to do in the course of a D&D game, including acting, exploring, instigating, fighting, optimizing, problem solving, and storytelling. Each one gets a few bullet points, like this:

Players who desire exploration want to experience the wonders that a fantasy world has to offer. They want to know what’s around the next corner or hill. They also like to find hidden clues and treasure.

Engage players who like exploration by….

  • dropping clues that hint at things yet to come.
  • letting them find things when they take the time to explore.
  • providing rich descriptions of exciting environments, and using interesting maps and props.
  • giving monsters secrets to uncover or cultural details to learn.

Likewise with each of the other sources of enjoyment in play.

What makes me happy is a particular kind of thing that isn’t here: there are no isms. Nobody is an explorationist; it’s just that some players really like exploration, while others don’t. The focus here is on things people do while gaming, not things they are.

My experience of gaming theory and analysis is that building categories around identities is a good way to send the whole thing straight into useless argument. People get defensive about identities, and why not? Identities matter. But poorly defined identities end up cutting their holders off from possible enjoyments, while committing them to stuff they may not like but that’s part of the identity as they understand it. This isn’t just a gaming problem, of course, it happens wherever an identity gets nailed down where it might not really be the most helpful way to think about a category.

The approach 5e takes here (and throughout the book) encourages experimentation, and allows room for changing preferences over time. It also fosters a cooperative rather than competitive spirit to the group’s shared experience – we can add some of this without necessarily ruining that or the other, because there’s no intrinsic competition. None of these preferences in terms that require them to work at the expense of another.

To sum up, this is the kind of foundation that I’d like all RPGs to have in their advice. It’s clear, flexible, encouraging, connected to inspirations in other media, and just plain good-natured.

Bruce and the DMG, Part 2: The Introduction

Bruce and the DMG, Part 1: The Volume

D&D 5th edition logo
D&D 5th edition logo
There's still stuff to talk about before I get to the contents! (In my head is a series of posts stringing this out and out and out…but no.) This post is about the physical volume that is my copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

It's an 8″ x 11″ hardbound book, 320 pages, with a retail price of $50 US. By my standards, at least, that's pricey, but as the ensuing parts of this review will suggest, I think it delivers solid value for that price. The cover is a purple-dominated scene of a heavily armored warrior suffering under the attacks of some kind of undead lord, with the red D&D logo and “Dungeon Master's Guide” up top, the white-on-red fire streak saying “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Everything a Dungeon Master needs to weave legendary stories for the world's greatest roleplaying game” down below. So this is very clearly on what it's all about. 🙂

I really prefer my game books in digest/trade paperback size. They're easier to shelve, and easier for me to hold, and significantly easier for me to refer to with the reduced physical space to scan for particular information. The 4th edition Essentials books were therefore a great joy to me in these ways. But I wasn't expecting 5e to keep that up, so the fact that it doesn't is no particular shock or sorrow.

All three 5th edition volumes have a very nifty feature. The front cover is entirely glossy, and so's the spine. But half the back cover is a nicely textured matte finish, setting off the back-cover blurb physically as well as visually. It feels really nice in my hands – it's a pure luxury touch that pays off, at least for me. I spend a solid majority of my gaming time and purchasing on electronic formats these days, but have always maintained that I like physical books for the things that only they can do. This is a perfect example. No PDF's ever going to go from glossy to matte beneath my fingers, I'm fairly sure.

The back cover matter, in case you're interested:

Entertain and inspire your players

The Dungeon Master's Guide provides the inspiration and guidance you need to spark your imagination and create worlds of adventure for your players to explore and enjoy.

Inside you'll find world-building advice, tips and tricks for creating memorable dungeons and adventures, optional game rules, hundreds of classic D&D magic items, and many other tools to help you be a great Dungeon Master.

When you're ready for even more, expand your adventures with the fifth edition Player's Handbook and Monster Manual.

Well, okay, then! That sounds like a good set of goals for a DMG to have. And I notice that starting right on the front and back covers, they're talking about dungeons as one part of the overall work – it's not just dungeoneering, but “worlds”. That makes me happy.

Next post, I'll actually open up the book!


Bruce and the DMG, Part 1: The Volume

Bruce and the DMG, Prologue

Let’s get this show on the road! It’s time to take a look at the Dungeon Master’s Guide for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. But before we get to what’s in the book, I want to write a little about the biases I bring to bear.5e DMG cover

I’ve been playing roleplaying games a long time – since 1977 – and helping to create them on and off for a good long while. It’s my experience that a whole lot of RPGs do a bad job of helping the referee understand what a successful session and campaign of this game might be like, what choices they should be thinking about to craft a fun time for their particular group, and like that. We are, far too often, left with something like Bun Rab’s angry denunciation of lucky rabbit’s feet in a Pogo strip: “What’s a rabbit’s foot without the rabbit? Nothin’ but a handful of disembodied toes!” So I’m always on the lookout for games that actually do provide this kind of teaching and support for the whole process of play.

D&D 3rd edition was pretty good about this. D&D 4th edition was excellent, but not nearly enough people knew it; far too many people harshing on the game never actually looked at what it said, even when they’d bought the books. Further, in recent years there’ve been a whole bunch of good RPGs of all sorts that do referee support really well. So I come at this deeply curious to see what sort of influences I spot, and also what kinds of cool new stuff (or at least new-to-me stuff) there is.

Finally, I much prefer to get enthusiastic over things that make me happy than to rant on about ones that make me unhappy or angry. Most of the time, therefore, you’ll find me spending more time and effort to explain just why something delights me than on artisanal locally sourced slams on parts I dislike. Negativity’s easy to come by; (hopefully) thoughtful happiness is in shorter supply, and it’s what I prefer to offer.

Bruce and the DMG, Prologue