Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On the Horizon: D&D Next Character Creation

I recently had an opportunity to participate in a playtest of the upcoming iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. It took me this long to get it to it because I had previously participated in a "Friends & Family" playtest back in March that left me very disillusioned with the future of Dungeons & Dragons. I thought I should organize my thoughts and impressions and put them up on the blog. Despite my misgivings about the legitimacy of the playtest Non-Discloure Agreement, I still feel the need to avoid discussing non-public content. Some of this may get slightly vague as I describe my thoughts and impressions of D&D Next.

After writing a great deal about my playtest experience, I realize it would be more useful if I broke it up into different posts. This post addresses my experience with creating a character. Future posts will address other aspects of my playtest experience.

Ability Scores: Cast the Dice

The first step in creating a character is rolling dice to determine ability scores. The default rule for D&D Next, at least for now, is to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest. The rules provide both a point buy method and a "default array" for those not interested in entrusting a campaign-long decision to a single roll of dice. I find it puzzling that the default would be random rolling (as this is generally prohibited in organized play anyway) but at least they made it clear point buy methods were acceptable.

Go ahead. Trust the rest of the game to the a few
simple dice rolls. What's the worst that could happen?
The biggest surprise for me with determining ability scores was that the point buy method did not allow a 16 or higher in any ability score. Using point buy, you could only get an ability score of 15. This seemed strange. I suppose this was meant to disincentivize the point buy method or the standard array, but I cannot imagine why they would want to do that. It seemed to make no sense. This was the my first sign that there was something amiss in this ruleset. However, I pressed on.

The Section of the Great Race

I do not have a whole lot to say about the race section. Although there are only the "standard" races available at this time, the Wizards of Renton have tried to present options for each race by dividing certain abilities and bonuses across separate "sub-races." Hill dwarves are better at different things than Mountain dwarves but they both share some features as well that Halflings and Elves do not have. It is an interesting way to do it and I wonder if they will continue to do this as more races are added to the collection.

There are a few strange issues that are likely to be fixed after a few iterations. For example, where previous editions gave certain races certain proficiencies to weapons, this current edition only gives a bonus to damage if the character already has proficiency. The net result is that non-Fighters tend to gain no benefit from the racial weapon training while Fighters get a statistical +1 to damage. I suspect that will be changed in future iterations. But the issues present in this version of the playtest seem minor. Unlike my pass with the ability score system, nothing here seemed to irk me.

Choose Your Character!

Choosing a class was a difficult endeavor for me. As of the current playtest document, there are only five classes available. This version of the playtest materials had the "standard" D&D classes of Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard. Although I realize that these are iconic classes in the game, I wonder why they did not focus more on a set of classes with fundamentally different game mechanics. As I see it, There were really only two classes to choose from here: the Maneuver class and the Gygaxian Caster. The biggest difference between the Cleric and Wizard was spell selection and weapon/armor proficiencies, so it does make me wonder why those two classes would not fall under one class, leaving an opening for a class with a fundamentally different mechanic (Sorcerer? Psionic?). But, I digress.

"Choose your Character!" This is roughly how I felt
when I started the Character Creation process.
[Note: I reference Gygaxian magic in lieu of Vancian magic. For those unfamiliar with my view on the classic D&D Magic system and how it relates to the writings of Jack Vance, I recommend reading my earlier examination of Vancian magic as it compares to Dungeons & Dragons. I use the term Gygaxian Caster or Gygaxian magic to represent the kind of magic system prevalent in most every edition of Dungeons & Dragons.]

Monk was my natural guess for
"next class to include" as well. Right?
This version of the playtest also included the Monk. I will admit that I consider the Monk to be a strange choice for fifth class to choose from, but they made it clear on the Dungeons & Dragons website that the Monk was included simply because it seemed to fit well with the Maneuver mechanics. To a certain extent, the Monk felt more like a variant of the Fighter and Rogue to me than it did a different class. Maybe I've gotten too deep into game design myself, but when I looked at the Monk I immediately think, "Having a Ki power must be near mechanically equivalent to a higher damage die, slightly higher armor class, and having an additional maneuver by level 10 that the Fighter gets." At least that's how I see it.

Some of you may look at my previous comment and think I am a bit crazy. "But Monks don't have the weapon and armor proficiencies that a Fighter has!" That's true, but I noticed that at our table the Monk rolled a d6 for damage (instead of d10 or d12) and had an Armor Class that was one lower than the Fighter. As I saw it, the "proficiencies or powers" mattered less than how it played at the table. Fighters had a larger damage die and slightly higher Armor Class. Monks, in exchange, got a quasi-magical power. "Guy who fights with Weapons" did not seem that much different to me than "Guy who fights with fists."

Despite only participating in a "one off" playtest session, I still had the urge to create a character that was more than just a named piece of equipment (like "Jax the Fighter"). Unfortunately, every interesting idea I had did not fit within the classes and races provided by the playtest packet without modification. Sometimes serious modification. My first impression was that this was a game that wanted you to conform to it and not a game that would conform to you. This was not surprising, though. Classically, D&D always starts with a limited set of options and gains more options, allowing more freedom in character creation, as the edition progress. I think my frustration came from the fact that I am used to having a wide pallet to work with (with Fourth Edition), so the restricted selection of choices is frustrating. Either way, I would have to find something to play.

Where Beer and D&D Collide

Frustrated, I started to look through the packet for some feature to inspire me. I decided that as none of the other players had made a Monk, it would be appropriate for me to test out. That being said, I'm not one for the typical Quasi-Asian monk. It usually felt surprisingly out of place in an otherwise very Tolkien setting. I tried to think how I could torque the Monk class to feel more in place in a standard fantasy setting. Somehow, I immediately thought of a Franciscan Monk with a surprisingly violent streak. Between prayer and brewing, this Monk would take time out of his day to smash in the face of villainous monsters. From that idea, Brother Sheltem of the Monastic Order of Helm was born.

The Monastic Order of Helm is best
known for brewing the legendary
beverage known as Helmsbier.
So, yes. For my D&D Next playtest I made the monk from the Franziskaner beer logo. It seemed to go together with little trouble, the Priest Background giving me mechanical description for the thing that I normally would have just made up on my own: he could call on temples and shrines of his faith for aid.  The Priest background with the Monk class that had a very Eastern theme was peculiar at first, but I imagined a half-drunk monk smashing people with his beer stein. It suspect his fighting style has a very sumo look to it. I added the Divine Magic Specialist to give him a bit more of a priestly vibe. In the end, I made a few choices and forced them together in a very peculiar way. In the end I felt good about it.

Alignment: The Point Where the Game Tells Me How to Act

Back when I played Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1990s, I remember getting really wrapped up in the idea of "Alignment." It did not take long for me to start to have issues with the two axis alignment system. Ideologies like "Lawful Evil" or "Neutral Good" began to make less and less sense to me as I got older and tried to decipher what it meant for something to be good or evil. Over time, I would come to disregard it entirely, leaving it out of games as it appeared. The Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons had a relatively light treatment of it so it was not hard for me to not pay attention to it. Since the new D&D Next playtest arrived on the scene, the old alignment system is back!

This bothered me a little bit at first but it did not take much for me to realize I did not care all that much. I would ignore it, just as I had before. What did bother me, though, was the alignment restrictions attached to the new Monk class. It was not a new restriction, being a mirror of previous editions, but it still bothered me. Monks had to be lawful. They could be lawful evil, but chaotic good was off the table. As I thought about it, the whole thing felt like a missed opportunity.

Chaotic "Monk" vs. Lawful "Monk"
Seriously? Nobody thought of this before me?
Alignment and the Monk class could easily fall into a sort of system like the Jedi and the Sith. The lawful Monk is similar to the Jedi, devoted to order and rigid code. The chaotic Monk is like a Sith Lord, gaining his power not from rigid discipline and training but from his own passions and force of will. The Ki power could even be somehow tied to the alignment of the Monk, granting different powers depending on the alignment. With that in mind, seeing the alignment restriction on the Monk class just seemed like a really unfortunate choice.

Skills and Things

Dungeoneering. Covering every skill
adventurers need since 2008.
This was an interesting area for me. I had originally been a big fan of Third Edition skills because that system gave you the freedom to invest skill points where you wanted. Your character would be trained in things that you wanted to the level that you wanted. So, in theory, I should be sort of into what they've done with the new iteration of Dungeons & Dragons because it models the diversity of skills in the same way.

But I don't.

Despite being very much against the "big umbrella" skills of Fourth Edition at first, I've actually grown to like them quite a bit because they allow players to accomplish similar tasks using different skills. Need to climb a cliff? I've had players make arguments for Athletics, Nature, Acrobatics, and Dungeoneering. Need to smooth talk the head of the Wizard's Guild? Try Diplomacy, Bluff, Arcana, or Streetwise. So, when I see a skill like "Rope Use" or "Spot," I feel that although there are a lot more skills to choose from, they are all a lot less useful. That being said, I would have to see how these seven or eight skills worked out in actual play before I made any judgment on their effectiveness.

With 13th Age due to be released in the next few months, I think about how they utilize Backgrounds to fill the space of Skills instead of specific named skills. To a certain extent, they took the generalization of skills seen in 4E and moved it to the realm of character background. This makes a simple skill roll an exercise in role-playing and collaborative storytelling as player's explain why a Centurion of the 501st Legion would have experience crocheting. I have grown to really like that method, so the fact that D&D Next has gone back to extremely specific, discrete skills is disheartening, to say the least. But, as I keep reminding myself, time will tell.

A Fully Loaded Killing Machine

The playtest rules have rules for purchasing equipment. Anybody who has read my stance on tracking things like character equipment will know that I really do not care at all about it. There was a big list of weapons. I cannot imagine why the list needed to be that big. Furthermore, as a Monk, I did not really care about that list of weapons. To that end, I cannot say a whole lot about equipment in D&D Next as it applies to character creation.

Equipment! There's nothing more thrilling in a role-playing game
than worrying about how many feet of rope you remembered to bring.
Looking over the list of weapons, I did find a few things that seemed odd to me. The Spear and Trident appear next to each other on the list. They are mechanically identical except for price and weight. The Trident both costs more and weighs more. It seems a strange thing to pay extra for more weight. The Rapier, Scimitar, and Short Sword are also very similar to one another except that the Scimitar does slashing damage.

I am surprised that they so quickly disregarded the weapons rules from Gamma World, where the player would choose a basic category and create what weapon they had from that category. I thought the guy who chose a heavy, two-handed ranged weapon that was a Microwave that shot radiation at people was pretty great. I suppose that is a style for a different kind of game.

Creating Characters: Conclusion

Right now, character creation in D&D Next feels very limited. Ideally, most of that will change over time. On the good side, character creation was relatively simple and I was able to finish it in less than a half hour. To a great extent, I feel like the quickness had a lot to do with the lack of options and less with any sort of clever design. As more races, classes, backgrounds, and specialities are added, I suspect character creation will begin to slow down a bit.

As I completed my character, I started to feel a little skeptical about the lack of options my character had. It seemed like he had one or two things to do in battle and a strange arrangement of skills. However, that concern mostly came from my perspective as a Fourth Edition player. I would reserve my judgment until I witnessed how it all panned out in play.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Player's Story: Avatar of the Archive

In the midst of a discussion with a friend about character options and how I found certain new role-playing game dissatisfying, I began to realize that my process for creating a character (as a player) was not quite in sync with that of a number of my peers. As I had the possibility of participating in new Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign (likely set in the default setting of the Nentir Vale), I thought I would take some time to demonstrate how I go through the process of creating a player character for myself.
Person made out of Psychic
Crystals. Seriously?

The DM mentioned an interest in a story involving psionics. I wanted to create a character that had a distinctly psionic focus, although I was not sure how I would potentially accomplish that. One distinctly psionic thing in Dungeons & Dragons that I have yet to really work with was the Shardmind, a Player's Handbook 3 race that has never found its way to a table I play at. This seemed like a good place to start. Now, I simply had to decide how I could make a shardmind into an interesting player character and not a ridiculous novelty.

Reading over the shardmind entry in PHB3, I continued to get a sense that an individual shardmind is not a person, per se, but a little different. In a certain sense, the entry gave me the distinct impression that every shardmind was a specific instance of a larger thing.
Shardminds are sentient fragments of the Living Gate, which once stood at the pinnacle of the intricate lattice of the Astral Sea. Beyond that gate lay the alien Far Realm, and the gate’s destruction during the Dawn War resulted in the rise of the mind flayer empire.
Although I was not particularly enthralled with the idea of "sentient fragments of the Living Gate," it did get me thinking about each individual shardmind being a specific instance of a greater intelligence or sentience. To that end, I found myself thinking of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda and, more specifically, Rommie, the Andromeda Ascendant's robotic avatar.

I assume every warship looks like this on the inside.
As I tried to think about how the shardmind would become associated with a ragtag group of adventurers, I realized that this character would need to be tweaked a bit. I had originally looked at this character as a separate avatar of a larger psionic entity. However, after giving it some thought, I thought it would be much more interesting if I made this shardmind more like a specific unit or process of a larger entity now separated from its greater whole. Instead of Rommie without the Andromeda, I thought it more like a Borg Drone without the Borg Collective.

I can only imagine Gene Roddenberry's disgust at my
brutal hacking of his creative universes...
This idea, and the inherent quest for identity, seemed to fit great for what I wanted. The shardmind was a physical instance of an old, psychic archive created by an ancient civilization. With the psychic archive facing destruction (or, even more interestingly, corruption), this shardmind was separated from the whole to save the last fragments of that civilization. As a potential future plot hook, it potentially carried some vital piece of knowledge that others would stop at nothing to acquire, although I know enough not to over-specify a character at creation. Either way, its crystalline structure was more than just a novelty. It was the last vestige of a fallen civilization.

Of course, I'm difficult. This wasn't enough. I did not want to make another robot finding a soul. That has been done plenty of times already. I wanted something more interesting. I wanted my character to have a personality and that personality was a problem. I also wanted to be able to tie my character to another player in an interesting way. For a moment, it seemed like I was asking too much. Nothing would satisfy my character concept. Then I remembered Winifred Burkle. Or, more appropriately, Illyria.

I always assumed Cthulhu looked like this
in human form. Didn't you?
I liked the idea of somebody important being consumed in the creation of this shardmind character. For this to work, I needed a second character. I would begin the campaign as a relatively mundane fighter, wizard, or whatever was needed. We'll call this character Bob (for now, anyway). The important thing about Bob is that Bob is a brother, husband, or lover of another character in the party. I even planned the first adventure (yeah, I'm that kind of player) where the party would discover the psychic archive as it began to finally collapse. Bob would approach the primary control interface only to be annihilated by psychic energy, a rather unfortunate outcome of the archive improperly trying to communicate with the adventurers. From this, the archive would know enough to create its final avatar, the shardmind. The shardmind would guide the adventurers to safety as the archive collapsed, earning a measure of trust.

So what's the point of Bob? Bob is there for dramatic effect. Bob's memories, emotions, and personality were imprinted on the shardmind (albeit accidentally). As with Fred/Illyria, the rest of the party would have to deal with this strange creature (who they realize to be important) but who continues to exhibit signs of the person they lost. Perhaps, over time, the personality of Bob would become more manifest, creating essential character drama in season 3 or 4. Or, perhaps the shardmind would begin to look like Bob. Time would have to tell on that one.
Part Bob. Part Psychic Archive.
Of course, I haven't even gotten to stats or powers. That's usually the smallest part of my character creation process. The power-point psionic classes are interesting as I have never played one as a player and they're sophisticated enough as to not bore me (like the Elementalist did). Of course, since the shardmind is only "stat-synched" with one of the psionic character classes, how I deal with it is a story for another post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Collaborative Roleplaying: Lords of Waterdeep

I will always admit that I run a very peculiar series of D&D Campaigns. I have taken a lot of cues from other games I have played or read about, implementing different gameplay elements as I feel it necessary. Some of the collaborative story game elements from games like Fiasco have been working their way deeper into my D&D game with a great deal of success. I thought I would highlight a way that I have changed the player's contribution to the game through a somewhat unexpected turn of events.

The Lord of Waterdeep

When developing my Waterdeep-centric campaign, I decided to take my own spin on the Masked Lords of Waterdeep. Inspired by the Brethren Court in the film Pirates of the Caribbean and their magical "Pieces of Eight," I decided that the thing that made a person a Lord of Waterdeep was a powerful artifact, a Lord's signet. Generally, these were transferred in a matter consistent with existing Waterdhavian history, but sometimes the Lord's signet would fall into stranger hands. Lords would know, via the magical signet, when and where meetings would be held. This allowed me to maintain that the Masked Lords often don't know who the other Masked Lords are and, to a certain extent, even how many Masked Lords really exist.

The Lords of Waterdeep are just like these guys. But
with more masks. And less... hair.
Why is this important? After the mad gnome meteorologist Chet Doppler unleashed an elemental storm on Waterdeep, the Head of the Waterdeep Meteorologist's Guild, Sir Winston Cloudstorm, was summoned by the Lords of Waterdeep to address the ongoing elemental threat to the city. The players decided that they needed to be at that meeting since they had actually defeated, captured, and concealed Chet Doppler without informing Meteorologist's Guild. Furthermore, as they suspected potential treachery amongst the Lords of Waterdeep, this would be a good opportunity to start looking for it.

This seemed like a great plan but I quickly realized one problem with all of it: that meeting would require me to enact a politically charged meeting of 9+ Masked Lords of Waterdeep entirely by myself. I had to think fast so I came up with a quick solution: each player would create his own Lord of Waterdeep and play that character during the meeting. If it went well, we may even do it again. People seemed to be into that and we ended the session with each player wondering about what kind of Lord of Waterdeep he may play.

Creating the Lords of Waterdeep

I always imagined the Lords
of Waterdeep as more sinister
looking than this.
Since the idea was that not every Masked Lord would necessarily know who the others were, I decided that each Lord's signet had a history to it, including an iconic name, such as the "Lord of Blades" or the "Lord of Secrets." To give a few examples, I quickly scribbled out some ideas as to what I was intending with all this. The following is one of my example Lords I presented to my players:
Prometheus Godstorm, Lord of Death
When the High Necromancer Szass Tam seized control of Thay, many of the less sinister Red Wizards of Thay were driven out. Many of them, such as Prometheus, moved west, finally settling along the Sword Coast. Originally, Prometheus tried to set himself up as a mild-mannered enchanter in Waterdeep, but quickly found himself involved with a group of questionable wizards within the Wizard's Guild of Waterdeep. Using his arcane knowledge and background to his advantage, he organized a cabal of necromancers and seized control of a significant portion of the Undertaker's Guild within Waterdeep. Now, he provides a relatively stable supply of "working undead" to less reputable agencies within the city and surrounding environment.
It's not clear how Prometheus became a Lord of Waterdeep. Typically, a necromancer who sells corpses (both animated and not) on the black market is not typical Lord material. Yet, despite that uncertainty, it is clear is that he possesses a Lord's Signet, a sign that he is a true Lord of Waterdeep. Legend goes that the Lord of Death's signet was last possessed by Kerrigan the Anarchist, the only Lord known to have betrayed Waterdeep, lost for over two hundred years.
Currently, my players are still throwing around ideas. My intent is to give each of them information that their lord would know about and play up the meeting of the lords as a way to expose some peculiar information. One of my players quickly came up with his lord, the Lord of Spice. The description he provided was part culinary master, part international importer, and part serious drug lord. Strangely appropriate description for the Lord of Spice, I thought.

Of course, I have yet to see how this bit of collaborative gameplay will turn out. Everybody seems relatively excited about it so far, but only time will tell if the meeting of the Lords of Waterdeep turns out to be a positive contribution to my D&D game or not.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dungeon Mastering: What about the Details?

Every role-playing game provides rules for specifying different details. At its most intricate level, there are a vast quantity of role-playing details that could be tracked, from every item a character has in his or her pockets to the precise number of pounds a character can heft. What you track says a lot about what you want your game to focus on. Some people are surprised at what can be abstracted. Some people are amazed when I tell them that as both a player and DM I do not bother tracking treasure. The truth is that there are a lot of details that can be tracked or disregarded and how you address those types of details says a lot about the type of game you want to play.

Distances and Combat

One thing that comes to mind is the idea of distance as it relates to battle. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, where every distance is given in squares. This is relevant because combat is expected to be conducted on a battle map where each square is 5 feet by 5 feet. How far a creature can move, a weapon can be thrown, or a spell can be cast is extremely important on the tactical combat grid.

Contrast it with games like 13th Age or Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay (3rd Edition). In 13th Age, ranged weapons have very abstract notions of range, such as "Nearby Targets Only." Warhammer FRP takes a similar stance, dividing range into Close, Medium, Long, and Extreme. Neither of these games go to great lengths to specifically declare how far these distances are. As the 13th Age rulebook states, "Usually you move fast enough to get where you want to go in a battle." This is a sharp contrast to Dungeons & Dragons, a game that has always given explicit speeds for creatures and distances for ranged weapons. What games like 13th Age or Warhammer FRP do worry about, though, is whether two creatures are engaged with one another or not.

This is a heated combat in Warhammer FRP. I swear.
The different focus changes the way combat feels. In D&D 4E, combat involves a lot of counting of squares. Distance matters and positioning is important. To a certain extent, D&D 4E combat is like Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions or XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In games like Warhammer or 13th Age, the move to abstract distances changes the focus more on actions and less on how far somebody can move. Where people are in combat matters and has technical effects, but it is nowhere near as important as in a tactical game like 4E. Both systems have their place in the tabletop RPG world. What is important is that the game group decide which approach would be more appealing for them.

Money, Equipment, and Encumbrance

The D&D Equipment List, circa 1993.
(notice the lack of barrels of pickled fish)
As a player and Dungeon Master, I never realized how little I cared about tracking money, equipment, and other personal property until I spent some time running d20 Modern. d20 Modern gave every character a "Wealth bonus" that was a general representation of their overall wealth. Players did not track each individual dollar but instead had a sense that this character was middle-class, poor, or disturbingly wealthy. If a character wanted to buy an item, they made a corresponding wealth check to see if they had the means to purchase it. Purchasing especially expensive items could lower the character's wealth bonus while earning significant amounts of money could raise the wealth bonus.

As a (young) player who had grown up tracking wealth down to the copper piece, the idea that it could be abstracted was fascinating. For some reason, this had never come up before. This idea sat in my thought-space throughout the near-decade that I managed to avoid playing any tabletop RPGs. When I finally came back to D&D, my approach had changed considerably. Seeing the "adventurer's kit" appear in the equipment list seemed enough for me to decide that the odds and ends of equipment, like wealth, were generally not worth the time to track. We just assumed that unless it seemed interesting otherwise, the characters had the typical equipment that they needed. Who cares if your character has five torches or two, thirty arrows or sixty. What matters is whether you run out. From my experience, running out of equipment, be it rations or crossbow bolts, is something better decided by the table (both players and Dungeon Master) when it's interesting in the context of the narrative. I felt the same about encumbrance rules. If I did not intend to bother tracking the details of what players had, why would I care about the details of how much it weighed?

Right. Encumbrance rules are optional.
Of course, that is my perspective on equipment. There are many players for whom equipment and wealth, like any other details, are important elements of the game worth tracking. I have met a number of people that really enjoy that aspect of the game. How much you have, how much you can carry, and how much it matters can be an important (and interesting) element of gameplay that may potentially shape the direction of the campaign. Getting that huge pile of gold out of the dragon's lair is important; knowing how many trips with how many mules is an important part of the game. At least for some players, that is. The important point about equipment, gold, and encumbrance, as with distances in combat, is making sure everybody at the table cares about the same kinds of things.

Other Details

There are a lots of details to focus on in a tabletop role-playing game. Everything from mapping a dungeon to counting experience points is something that a game group may, or may not, consider important. Being able to recognize that different players are interested in different things is important in putting together and maintaining a game group. Hopefully, by realizing that almost every aspect of the game is a potentially unnecessary detail that is up for discussion, groups will more readily come together and stay together.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Legal Issues in Gaming: Patenting your Game

When people look to legal protections for their game designs, copyright and trademark tend to be the most obvious choices. However, as previously discussed, the actual rules of the game do not actually fall under copyright law. Luckily, the United States has established the law of patents to help protect things like the rules of a board game.

Patents: Protecting the Process

As I previously discussed, the Federal Constitution grants Congress the power "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries[.]" From this, Congress can grant inventors rights over their inventions. This is the area of intellectual property law known as patents.

Title 35 of the United States Code governs patents (in the United States of America). Generally, patents are applicable to scientific inventions, which includes machines, compositions, and even processes. Specifically, patent law protects the following kind of inventions:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.
35 USC §101. Looking at the definition of patentable inventions, it sounds like patent law is meant for things like new kinds of engines, chemical formulae, or other "scientific" inventions. Yet, there is a long history of the "process" of the rules of a game being considered and protected under the patent law or the board game being an "apparatus" protectable under patent. But is it the right thing for your game?

Early Board Game Patents

One of the earliest board game patents is the "Landlord's Game," a board game apparatus invented by Lizzie J. Magie in 1904. Although the patent includes multiple claims, they all center around a "game-board, having corner-spaces, one constituting the starting-point," with "intervening spaces of different denominations" that are "distinguished by coloring or other marking," and a "series of movable pieces having reference to the different divisions upon the board." It also includes a "chance device to control the movement of the pieces" and "ticket representing money, deeds, notes, mortgages, bank mortgages, charters, legacies, and luxuries" for use with the game.
Hey! That sounds familiar!
Interestingly enough, Lizzie Magie (later Lizzie Magie Phillips) filed another patent in 1924 for "The Landlord's Game." This patent was very similar to the original but with a variety of novel additions and features to the original patented claims. So how is this relevant? Well, Charles Darrow, a heater salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, would eventually file a patent in 1935 for:
In a board game apparatus a board acting as a playing-field having marked spaces constituting a path or course extending about the board, said path affording a continuous track for the purpose of continuity of play, certain of said spaces being designated as by position or color as to constitute a distinguishable group, there being a plurality of such groups each differing from the others and each having its space adjacent on the same side of the board, the apparatus having indications of the rentals required for the use and occupancy by opponent players, of spaces of one or more such groups, which rentals are subject to increase by the acquisition of an additional space or spaces of the same group by the same individual player, thereby making it possible for the possessor to exact greater payments or penalties from any opponent resting or trespassing thereon.
U.S. Patent No. 2,026,082 (issued Dec 31, 1935). That's just the first claim of nine in his patent. His patent was transferred, along with all other associated IP rights, to a company called Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers began marketing the game, known as Monopoly, and it became the most popular game in the United States. Darrow became the first millionaire game designer in history. Nobody seemed to care that his "invention" was suspiciously similar to two previous patents.

Since the early days of the 20th century, many different people have filed patents for board and card games. Games such as the Lawsuit board game, the What's For Dinner board game, a Gangster board game, and even a "trading card game" by a small Seattle based company. The real question that remains, though, is whether or not it is worth it to patent a board or card game?
It's a Lawsuit!™ (Patent #6,805,351)
Board Game Patents: Nobody Cares

Normally, when you file a patent, the patent examiner who reviews it ensures that your patent is a novel, non-obvious invention that was not in existence previously. Usually, this involves a review of existing patents, published writings, and a host of other information to verify that the patented invention is a legitimate new invention. Yet, in the world of board and card games, the process has a certain peculiarity to it.

Consider the original Monopoly patent. That patent was issued despite Magie's existing patents with similar rulesets. A great deal of research has suggested that other games even more similar to Monopoly than Magie's game had been in existence up to a decade prior to Darrow's patent. Yet, despite this, Darrow's patent was issued. Although one patent attorney told me that the key to Darrow's patent was clever writing to differentiate it from Magie's patent, given the number of patents that have been issued since then that are remarkably similar, it seems that the USPTO just doesn't care about board game patents.

That being said, what does a patent grant the holder? Normally, a patent is a monopoly to create and distribute the protected invention. Somebody who infringes on the protected invention is liable to the holder of the patent. But has this ever happened? Although no expert, I could only find a single reference to a patent infringement suit for a board game (brought by Parker Brothers in 1935) but it was settled out of court. Patent infringement suits tend to be costly and, as it ends up, usually involve a trip to the Eastern District of Texas.
Fear the patent on turning a card 90ยบ (to Tap).
As a more modern example, despite all of the fear associated with Wizards of the Coast's patent on turning a card 90 degrees to indicate exhaustion, there seems to be no indication that an infringement suit has ever been brought along those lines. This could have something to do with the fact that bringing a patent infringement suit always raises the potential for having the patent declared invalid by the court. Or, it could be based more on the fact that a majority of tabletop game developers lack the "deep pockets" that one normally looks for when bringing suit. Either way, a board game patent holder has a lot of reasons to not pursue a patent infringement suit.

Getting a Patent: Costs and Benefits

At the end of the day, is it worthwhile to patent a board or card game? Since even the simplest patent can easily cost over $10,000 to file, your typical tabletop game designer really has to consider whether or not it is worth it. Most of the biggest games in tabletop gaming, including The Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Carcassonne, and Ticket To Ride were published with no patent protection. All of these games were extremely successful and continue to do well. Contrast this with the bulk of board and card games that have patent protection. Most of those games never even got published or, if they did, saw little overall success.

There are other reasons not to pursue patent protection for a board or card game. The gaming community tends to react very negatively to heavy-handed legal action. This could result in a lot more negative publicity than expected. Leaving the game rules open to the public is a way to build a larger community, as was witnessed with Dungeons & Dragons and the Open Game License. A game designer seriously interested in potentially seeking patent protection should consult not only a patent attorney but also a community manager to weigh the costs and benefits associated with such an action, because the last thing you want is to doom your game in an effort to protect it.

The statements made in this article are the opinions of the author (and the author alone) and do not constitute legal advice. Comments posted on this article do not create an attorney-client relationship. Recommended listening: Episode 16 of the Law of the Geek podcast, available at http://lawofthegeek.com.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On the Horizon: The Next Step for a D&D Player

As a D&D Encounters organizer/participant, I have a lot of new people show up and ask about the future of Dungeons & Dragons. Honestly, as a D&D Encounter organizer, I know just as much about the future of the game as anybody else. That being said, I thought I would highlight a few developments in the RPG hobby that might be interesting for people to look at.

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game by Paizo Publishing, LLC

Pathfinder is not a new development within the tabletop RPG community. However, it is currently the market leader and continues to make big steps into the market. Right now, with very few other people really vying for the Dungeons & Dragons player base, Pathfinder has done well in "converting" people to their game. But what game is it?

Find your Path.
At its base, Pathfinder is just a reprint of Dungeons & Dragons v3.5. As a friend once put it, it is D&D3.5 with a number of notable house-rules. Pathfinder was born from a community of D&D3.5 players and developers who did not like the changes made with the fourth edition. Since its release, there has been more growth within the ruleset, adding additional character options, combat options, player races, and other things that differentiate it from where it started.

As an option for fantasy role-playing, Pathfinder is a viable choice because it has a developer who continues to support the game with adventure paths, additional game features, and a host of other novel products. The organized play organization, the Pathfinder Society, feels a lot more like the old D&D organizations (Living Greyhawk, Living Forgotten Realms), a system that can be intimidating for new players. Luckily, the Pathfinder community grew out of the remnants of the D&D3.5 player base, so finding a group is usually not that hard.

13th Age by Fire Opal Media

13th Age is an upcoming role-playing game developed by two "veterans" of the D&D scene, Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. People may recognize those two names (or, comically, radical D&D fans may only recognize one of them). Jonathan Tweet was one of the three principal author/designers of the Third Edition core rulebooks while Rob Heinsoo was one of the lead author/designers of the Fourth Edition core rulebooks. In addition, Keith Baker (of Eberron fame) helped with some of the original design concepts.

What does this mean for 13th Age? People who backed it (either via the Escalation Edition pre-order or via the expansion Kickstarter) already have a glimpse of what to expect. 13th Age sits in a space that would likely make parts of both the 3/3.5 community and 4E community content. However, it's not the 3/4E pedigree that is most interesting about 13th Age. What makes 13th Age interesting is a lot of the things that are NOT 3/4E that is most compelling.

Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo have taken a lot of inspiration from the indie RPG community in developing 13th Age. Although it still has its roots very much in the D&D bloodline, some of the little things make it really stand out. Characters build ties, both good and bad, to the 13 "icons" of the world, with mechanical considerations for how that can relate to specific situations. Characters spend points on different backgrounds that are used instead of specific skills. Every character has "one unique thing" that sets them apart from the rest of the world. There are a lot of little things about 13th Age that set it apart from its predecessors in a very good way.

All of these features help shape 13th Age as a game that intends to sit somewhere between the classic world of D&D and the indie RPG community. Some elements of the game have already made it into my D&D campaigns at home. I expect to see 13th Age as the game for fans of D&D who are willing to try out some interesting variations to the game but who still want to keep some of the basic core of the D&D game. Expect it somewhere at the end of the year.

Other Games (Dungeon World, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and more)

There are other games out there worth taking a look at. Dungeon World, by Sage Kobold Productions, uses the rules developed in Apocalypse World and tailors them for a fantasy world akin to Dungeons & Dragons. It is a "indie RPG" insomuch that it deviates from the accepted norm of fantasy RPGs. That does not mean it is not a great idea. I suspect a game like Dungeon World accomplishes a lot of the things that the big public playtest for D&D is trying to do. Dungeon World is a game with some solid game mechanics that emphasizes exploration, role-playing, and combat in a powerful way. For those that are unfamiliar with it, I recommend asking your local game store to order it when it becomes available.

Now, with 40% more tables!
Dungeon Crawl Classic is another game that is currently available. After reading through the early parts of the introduction, I realized that although DCC is not a game for me, it brings a lot to the table for people who want a very specific kind of tabletop RPG. This is a game that emphasizes high-fatality, old school dungeon crawling adventure. The fact that character creation has each player make six level zero characters, only to have five of them die horribly in the first adventure speaks a lot to the kind of play session this game is going for. It's brutal. It's rough. But, like games such as Hackmaster, this game really captures the feel of AD&D or Second edition but with a lot of thought put into the game design.

There are other games, of course. Old classics like Steve Jackson's GURPS or Pinnacle's Savage Worlds can do a fantasy setting just fine. Those interested in reliving the less pleasant aspects of the 1980s could investigate Palladium Fantasy Roleplay. Even old editions of Dungeons & Dragons can be found at used bookstores and game shops (or, as Wizards of the Coast permits, reprinted at your local gamestore). So, as Dungeons & Dragons heads into "the year with no new D&D," there are a lot of options available for people looking to play something different.