Missing Manuals

Every once in a while, but with some regularity, someone will ask for module recommendations, often as a way to get into old school or classic play. I am somewhat conflicted regarding the best response to such requests because, while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with modules, and they have some particular utility, modules are also limiting, often have poor handling, and are poor examples of the form’s potential.

My inclination is to instead suggest that referees, even new referees, create a simple custom scenario. This is unnecessarily intimidating, partly due to some unfortunate ingrained assumptions, including seemingly upward comparison to professional offerings with illustrations, cartography, edited prose, and so forth. In reality, crafting a satisfying classic scenario is often less complicated than the process of building a player character in a contemporary system, but has become obscured by a shroud of world building complexity and the detritus of expectations related to literary story structure. There are a few examples of procedures that a referee can follow to create a scenario, such as Moldvay’s double spread in 1981 Basic D&D (pp. B51-B54) which explains how to create an adventure. The recent Old School Essentials SRD provides similar information, available for free online (adventure scenarios, designing a dungeon, designing a wilderness). Other resources exist as well, though often buried in other materials.

These resource are useful, but still often seem to be pitched at the wrong level, lacking sufficiently concrete set of recommended actions, or attached to bland thematic content. As an example of the kind of referee rules that I think would be an antidote to module recommendations, I want to highlight two recent blog posts about crafting megadungeons:

The Two Week post in particular is a practical and clear example, though perhaps still slightly intimidating for a starting referee. Unfortunately, the trappings of a megadungeon is probably mildly counterproductive, despite the likely truth that following Nick’s megadungeon building guidelines would probably be easier and more enjoyable than skimming B2, or just about any published module scenario. (In reality, the observant and experienced reader will also note that a megadungeon is really just a series of linked scenarios that happen to be subterranean.)

If you are aware of any other similar scenario building procedures worth highlighting, drop them in the comments. Procedural rules rather than something like a collection of tables would be most useful. I am sure I am neglecting some other good resources. This is also a call for what to include in a game’s referee book or section.

Waltz of Souls

Dark Souls encodes a number of fundamental play dynamics that produce a particular kind of satisfying play. In this post, I am going to discuss a way the game supports and rewards an enterprising but focused player stance toward the unknown.

First, the game penalizes both reckless and overly cautious play. A player of even a relatively high level character can still be messed up substantially by some of the weakest and simplest enemies if the player fails to pay attention and take the threat seriously. In contrast, a player that is too cautious will always be on the back foot, and less able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. In this way, courage in the face of danger and a spirit of enterprise serve the player best for developing their own skill, improving their fictional avatar, and deepening the complexity of the imagined world. In short, the game entices player engagement and rewards persistence in the face of failure (amplified by many other design decision that are beyond the scope of this post), rather than providing participation trophies for just showing up or presenting a passive media entertainment experience. (Post continues after 80 second video fighting an Old Knight in Dark Souls 2.)

Knife fighting with an Old Knight

Second, this reward and penalty structure creates a cybernetic feedback loop. Feedback loops are powerful, but can also topple into degenerate cases. The most engaging forms of feedback loop for gameplay involve adaptation rather than return to static equilibria. The system improves itself. If a feedback loop reaches a static equilibrium, the “game” ends, even if the players continue to engage due to habituation (perhaps analogous to how a thermostat maintains static conditions). If the feedback loop is negative, at some point the game ends because the activity as pattern destroys itself (similar to how a democracy can collapse into tyranny, a market bubble can pop, or a virus can burn itself out by killing all the hosts). In an adaptive feedback loop, each iteration of feedback produces a more complex, satisfying, resilient whole.

The play iterations of a tabletop roleplaying game can manifest similar dynamics. In one example of a degenerate case, players learn to avoid play by creating elaborate scripts to mechanically deploy when presented with any challenge. In OSR/etc. games, this sort of script may manifest as something like: always look at the ceiling, tap the floor with a ten foot pole, listen at the door. Disconnected from any context or cost, such scripts represent rote mechanization rather than adaptive learning. Players indicate by such behavior a way that their own motivational architecture is to some degree incompatible with or in tension with the game mechanisms or the particular campaign instance.

In the adaptation case, players learn how to navigate challenges by developing skills, along with the contextual knowledge of when to use the skills, and in so doing increase competence. This allows a player to face more complex challenges that incorporate, but move beyond, the existing skill. A simple example trajectory of several iterations might be fighting one troll successfully (to learn troll weaknesses), then fighting many trolls, then tricking other opponents without access to troll weaknesses into fighting trolls, and so forth. Ideally, the player would learn such details through play rather than outside of play by memorizing facts from an official rulebook.

Dark Souls, being a computer game, might be a purer example of this dynamic compared to a tabletop roleplaying game, since options are more constrained, but the template applies to some kinds of successful tabletop roleplaying games. The various versions of Dark Souls, and specific challenges within each, embody this ideal design to greater or lesser degrees; sometimes the game misses the mark. Though Dark Souls rewards certain kinds of creativity when approaching challenges, it has a basic combative frame which limits the learning potential. Additionally, sometimes the challenges degenerate into tedium—such as some long approaches from bonfires to bosses which require the player to pay a relatively boring tax to attempt a previously failed challenge again. But the abstraction is still clear enough to be a useful exemplar. (Post ends with 112 second video fighting The Lost Sinner in Dark Souls 2.)

Fighting the Lost Sinner

(Videos are personal play recordings, all Dark Souls 2I apologize for inflicting my poor technique on the viewer.)

Ethos of Play

DistemperedGus (of All Dead Generations) recently posted a series of Twitter threads on alignment, reaction rolls, morale, asymmetric encounters, and faction intrigue, all classic rules subsystems and approaches that he argues contribute to a particular classic “ethos” of play.

Because people talking about classic tabletop roleplaying games have become balkanized over various social media platforms, and Twitter is a hellscape, and I may want to link or refer to this collection of threads in the future, I am spotlighting them here. I also used Thread Reader App to create thread pages so that the threads can be read in a more bloglike format, for those that so desire:

Dark Souls 2 Rat King Covenant

It is probably worth noting, since this is the Internet, that my spotlight means “useful and worth reading” rather than that I agree with all threads on all points and in all particulars. For example, I would say that alignment as adventurer allegiance (rather than adventurer moral commitment) can function quite apart from moral essentialism, to say nothing of less savory interpretations. Law and Chaos as depicted in OD&D (and the refined “Basic” rulesets) is fuzzy in this regard, easily pushed in either direction. To be more explicit in notion, consider using alignment categories such as Unseelie, Neutral, Seelie, or Rebel Alliance, Neutral, Galactic Empire rather than Chaos, Neutral, Law (or, God help us all, the baroque murk that is the AD&D 3×3 matrix).


In case you want to create similar thread pages using Thread Reader App, here is how to do so A) without cluttering up someone else’s thread and B) without cluttering up your own timeline.

  1. Quote-retweet the thread in question with only the text:
    @threadreaderapp unroll
  2. Wait for the @ reply from @threadreaderapp (which in my experience takes a few seconds)
  3. Save the URL provided in this reply (which you could also derive from the original Twitter thread URL based on the tweet ID)
  4. Delete your quote-tweet that was originally addressed to @threadreaderapp
  5. Now the unrolled thread page persists for future reference

(You may need to follow @threadreaderapp first as well, but I am unsure.)

You can also easily print the unrolled thread pages to PDF, perhaps with the help of extensions to exclude distracting images, and so forth.

Dark Souls 2 Rat King: Rejoice!

(All post images are personal screen shots.)

Endgame Mirages

Panel from Berserk volume 12

Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D provide rules for advancement up to level 36, with guidelines that adventurers should gain one level every five adventures (Rules Cyclopedia, page 129). I generally take “an adventure” to entail multiple game sessions, but even if you complete one adventure every session, assuming no setbacks such as adventurer death or level drain, and play once per week, a group must play for almost 3.5 years to reach level 361. It seems reasonable to assume that few actual campaigns have followed this procedurally proposed trajectory. This is an extreme, but other TSR rulesets, such as B/X or AD&D, seem to also imply an implausible level of commitment for most people playing most campaigns in most situations. One interpretation of this fact is that the rules are flawed, and it would be better to make endgame rules that people will, in fact, actually play. But what if the main function of late game rules material in TSR D&D, and descendants, is more to entice players into longer games?

A design trend exists around more focused games, which values explicit and transparent description of both rules and intent. According to this sort of evaluative criteria, the late game TSR D&D rules are ineffective, and perhaps even misleading or disingenuous. They promised me a castle, and all I got was this lousy longsword +2! However, there is no inherent reason that the most effective rule, functionally, must articulate its intent and function, or even that the designer must understand the likely function. Surely there are exceptions, but in general focused games tend toward one-shot, mini-series, or shorter campaigns. It seems possible that the lack of enticing phantasm in such designs may partly explain this difference.

Goals are only motivating prior to being reached. Following goal accomplishment, it is on to the next goal. Perhaps the TSR endgame is a form of ultimate imagined goal that works exactly because it is unlikely to be obtained. Lack of complete consummation does come with some drawbacks, such as the anecdotal observation that campaigns often end, following Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper. As the duration of a campaign increases, an anticlimactic ending becomes more likely, even if players do maintain interest and attention, as changes in life circumstances will implacably conspire against the campaign of unusual ambition’s persistence. Whether a longer, complex campaign, often lacking closure, or a shorter, more contained campaign is better seems like a matter of taste, but either way having rules that players almost never use could still shape gameplay in substantial ways. This is another example showing how taking a text at face value may be a poor, or at least incomplete, guide to game functionality or game meaning.


1. A fighter requires approximately 3.4 million XP to reach level 36. A magic-user requires approximately 4.3 million XP to reach level 36.

Simulation and Exploration

Neither simulation nor exploration! (Source)

People often use different words for the same (or highly similar) concepts, or the same word for radically different concepts. Academia in particular has driven home for me the mismatch of jargon and meaning across silos, but the same thing happens in nontechnical discussions. The confusion around creative agenda modes shows an example within discussion about tabletop RPGs. In general, I suspect actual communication happens far less often than people assume, in any domain. In this post I will highlight a few more terms that scenes seem to use in different ways, specifically simulation and exploration.

Forge-speak simulationism seems close to what OSR/etc gamers (myself included, I suppose) mean when we speak of exploration. When a big model theorist discusses simulationism it has almost nothing to do with whether, for example, sailing rules in a game accurately capture wind dynamics as might be modeled by a physicist. Recall that the subtitle of the original Edwards essay on simulationism is The Right to Dream. And Forge-speak uses exploration to denote a completely different concept, as should be superficially obvious when you look at the diagram/logo for the big model wiki, something more like engaged play. Here is a big model explanation of Exploration:

What’s Exploration? Exploration is playing the game. If you are imagining stuff, rolling dice, talking in character, or paying attention to someone else’s scene in the game- you’re playing and you’re Exploring. If you’re busy playing videogames on your DS and not paying attention, if you’re on your cell phone, reading comics, or otherwise in any common sense way not playing the game, you’re not Exploring.

And here is Ben on OSR/classic exploration:

The lack of knowledge is thus a source of peril and uncertainty. It is both an obstacle to be overcome and a hazard to be dared. There is also a thrill of discovery, of uncovering things that are hidden. If the game is being played well, what is uncovered are not boring things. Every dungeon is initially a mystery, every artifact a hidden wonder, every faction an unknown quantity. To explore a dungeon is to unravel the mystery of the place.

A pair of Dark Souls analogies may help further illustrate this distinction. OSR exploration has to do with the feeling you get when you hear the new area sound, which has been burned into my mind as the sound of a new vista opening up:

This feeling is tied heavily to interaction with the fictional context as a coherent and meaningful place rather than as game mechanisms or story progressions. (Tangentially, I would also add that this is more about imagined possibility than it is about immersion in the method acting or narrative transportation sense.) In contrast, big model exploration would be closer to what is going on when the player learns and exploits the pattern of an enemy’s move set:

This is more like a structural fitting in of the player’s voluntary actions with the mechanisms and interfaces that the game presents. You could get the first kind of exploration without engaging many of the Dark Souls game mechanisms at all. And you could get the second kind of exploration in a wireframe test arena totally disconnected from the stages or levels of the game (which would be the campaign setting or shared imaginary space in tabletop roleplaying).

Possible Ideals

Adi Shankara argues for purity of practices as roads to moksha (image source: Wikipedia)

Recently I was thinking to myself: people have written some words about tabletop RPG theory (understatement of the decade). This work is often “empirical” in the loose sense that theorists base conclusions on observing their own play experiences and the experiences of others (often second-hand) but it is not empirical in the sense that a social scientist would generally use that term. And so I was thinking, I have some quantitative data about player preferences, would it be possible to see whether this data could substantiate some of these claims using quantitative methods, or perhaps suggest alternatives based on something beyond anecdote? Specifically, I was thinking about that venerable Forge concept “creative agenda” and the various creative agenda modes proposed as incompatible: gamism, narrativism, and simulationism. These four concepts belong to a broader collection of ideas called the big model, though the GNS subcomponent has had the largest impact on general thinking about RPGs, of the big model concepts.

Before exploring creative agendas in data about player preferences, I had to make sure that I understood the concepts, beyond surface associations. This means taking the theorists seriously, and accepting definitions, even (perhaps especially) when the naming seems counterintuitive or disconnected from the lay understanding of terms. It is unproductive to approach the theory of electromagnetism with the stubborn idea that a field is properly only an expanse of ground covered by grass, flowers, and so forth. Ideally, jargon will involve some congruence between intuitive and technical meanings, but that is perhaps unrealistic to expect in all cases. Sometimes it is best to just use the imperfect, established term, and move on with your life.

After several conversations with people who have engaged heavily with these concepts and find parts of the big model personally useful, I have come to believe that I (and probably many people outside of the Forge and story games diasporas) misunderstand both the specific terms and the broader goal of this collection of ideas. Rather than explanation, I think the purpose of big model thinking generally, and the more specific ideas around creative agenda, is to present particular ideals of possible game practice. This is in many ways closer to a therapeutic framework in counseling psychology, such as psychoanalysis, person-centered therapy, CBT, or DBT. Therapeutic frameworks generally involve a greater focus on particular interventions and some alignment with evidence based practice compared to the big model, but once you understand the theory like this, the way people use and discuss it makes a lot more sense, at least to me.

Wilfred Bion, an early pioneer of group dynamics in therapy (image source: Wikipedia)

To be (somewhat) more concrete: the big model theorist looks at a collection of play goals aligned in some way, such as learning and challenge (“gamism”) and wonders whether purifying a play experience around only these play goals might be uniquely satisfying for the collective experience of a group of players. Similarly for other modes. This is what the big model means by coherent play. Whether this matches any particular experience is almost beside the point, much like the way a three-minute sprint mile is an ideal that has never been reached for the sprinter (though obviously the activity of sprinting is far simpler than tabletop roleplaying).

So what about the player preferences data? Based on this understanding, it would be a poor fit for big model concepts, even accepting that measurement at the individual level could approximate a group-level analysis consistent with big model claims. People will have to think a lot harder about ways to measure big model concepts before that will become possible, and from what I can tell there has been little enthusiasm for that kind of work to date. The data I have still has potential to reveal connections between what players enjoy during play and what players find useful in games, which I may explore in a future post.

Some simple takeaways for outsiders when trying to make sense of big model ideas: substitute “play goal” (or perhaps “ultimate play goal”) whenever you see the words creative agenda, and realize that the point of the theory is presenting possible ideals, rather than explanation. You may lose some nuance, particularly involving individual versus collective experience, but that is probably closer to the intended meaning than running with intuitive associations.

Appetizer of Bukako

A brief taste of the feast to come. All the spells are written, the layout is done, and we are just messing with some final details. Update: it is done! Get it here for free. Four samples:

[Earthquake] Mood of Gravity

By smearing the face with mud, dust, or jagged rock shards, the sorcerer’s soul fuses with a greater earth spirit, binding the emotions of the sorcerer to the movement of faults deep below. For the duration of the spell, annoyance and minor pains result in tremors while wrath and great pain yield proportional restlessness of the earth. When the spell ends, the sorcerer becomes numb to the experience of any emotional intensity until the spell can be prepared again.

[Enlarge] Engorgement

The sorcerer must prepare a dish from flesh of a four-legged animal, spiced well and thoughtfully. Upon speaking the magic words, and consuming the food, the sorcerer grows to the size of the animal consumed, persisting in that size until passing the animal’s remains. Only the sorcerer’s body changes, and upon the spell’s end there is a 1 in 6 chance of the sorcerer permanently manifesting some physical aspect of the creature, such as goat horns, horse hooves, or cat eyes. If the animal consumed was of a kind to lay eggs, the sorcerer will lay an egg within 1d6 weeks, birthing a creature of wonder or terror.

[Fear] Beacon of Terror

By prostration, tracing forbidden signs on the ground, and slapping the ground three times, the sorcerer causes an infinitely high beam of light to spring forth from the ground like a pillar rising to heaven. For any creatures of level four or less witnessing the radiant beam, taking any action other than fleeing the beam pillar requires succeeding at a saving throw. When the spell ends, the beam flickers out, but if the beam was called under open sky there is a 1 in 6 chance of attracting attention from spirits of the air, dragons in transit, or a flock of giant eagles.

[Message] Sending of Bats

During the dead of night while in a cave, earthy hollow, or dead tree, the sorcerer invokes the ancient pact of Chirops, which obligates bats to serve as envoys for the wise. In 1d6 turns, a colony of bats prostrates themselves around the sorcerer to receive a message, which the colony will then carry to a destination or recipient provided by the sorcerer, to sing the message thrice in a harmony of bat voices. There is a 1 in 6 chance the bats will be the size of condors—bat champions—only willing to serve following negotiation of terms.

JRPG Basic Mark 2

Here is a JRPG rules hack. I think this one is tighter than my previous attempt, and may even be playable as is.

First chose a base chassis (B/X D&D, Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, whatever), and then apply the following rules modules.

Signature Weapons

Black Mage (personal sketch)

Every player character gets a signature weapon. Fighters get sword (because fighters are the magic sword class). For other classes, choose a non-sword signature weapon (or determine randomly): 1 axe, 2 bow, 3 crossbow, 4 dagger, 5 mace, 6 spear, or 7 war hammer. Adventurers can use weapons afforded by class or signature weapon, and attack with advantage when using a signature weapon. (This list of possible signature weapons matches possible magic weapons from the classic treasure tables; if you choose some other kind of weapon, such as revolver, you might want to modify the treasure tables accordingly.)

Homunculiths

Rather than traditional spells, adventurers draw power from magic crystals called homunculiths. Replace magic weapon plusses with homunculith sockets (so a spear +2 means a spear with two homunculith slots). Any character can use magic afforded by a slotted homunculith if the character can use the weapon and can supply the necessary magic points.

Magic-users can slot a number of homunculiths in various magical paraphernalia equal to character level. This can be hat clips, belt buckles, cane handles, whatever (describe the slots; the stone has to go somewhere, and has to be visible). Working homunculith slots into equipment requires a haven turn or downtime action for a magic-user. Only magic-users can make use of homunculiths in magical paraphernalia. Characters that would otherwise begin with spell slots start with one randomly determined homunculith.

Determine treasure using the treasure tables with some degree of strictness, but: replace magic scroll results with spell homunculiths, replace magic ring results with nexus homunculiths (used to summon daemonotheurgic entities; see below), and read arrow or bolts as bow or crossbow with homunculith slots (by bonus), respectively.

Magic Points

Since hit points come from hit dice, magic points must come from magic dice; adventurer MD by class: fighter = d4, thief = d6, magic-user = d8. (Generally, classes with high HD should have low MD and vice versa, so infer MD for other classes based on that principle.) Determine MP total similarly to HP total (so a third-level fighter gets 3d4 MP). Additionally, use the MD when determining damage from magic that calls for dice (so magic-users roll with pools of d8 and fighters roll with pools of d4). Characters recover spent MP during haven turns/downtime.

Spell Homunculiths

Choose a spell list. Determine the spell associated with each homunculith randomly. Ignore results with “summon monster” type effects (because nexus homunculiths handle summoning). You could use the traditional spells, the spells from Pits & Perils, Wonder & Wickedness, the spells I drafted as part of my previous JRPG Basic musings (black magic spells, white magic spells), some other source, or some combination. Here is the list of spell names from Pits & Perils: Bolt, Call, Calm, Cure, Fade, Fear, Find, Foil, Gaze, Glow, Heal, Hide, Know, Link, Load, Mend, Mute, Null, Pass, Rise, Ruin, Send, Stun, Ward. Determine the MP cost of each spell randomly by rolling 1d6. Once determined, the cost is set (so it is possible to discover a better homunculith with the same spell).

Nexus Homunculiths

Mist dragon summon from Final Fantasy 4 (SNES)

Nexus homunculiths are bound to summonable daemonotheurgic entities. Generate the entity linked to a nexus homunculith by rolling on a table of monsters, and then adding an elemental aspect: 1 fire, 2 ice, 3 lightning, 4 radiance, 5 shadow, 6 slime. For the table of summonable monsters, collect all the monsters in your rulebook of choice with HD of 6 or higher, crossing them off as adventurers discover homunculiths. Give each daemonotheurgic entity a name. Attach an action die to the daemonotheurgic entity. By default, this is d6:

  1. Attack
  2. Attack
  3. Attack
  4. Elemental
  5. Elemental
  6. Special (make this up when creating the entity)

Summoning an entity costs 1 MP. When summoning an entity using a nexus homunculith, determine entity HP using remaining entity HD.

Roll the entity’s action die to determine actions each round after summoning. The summoner can override the action die using a command, but this requires spending an action. Commanding the special attack will cause the entity to depart afterwards. The action die determines the monster’s action but the summoner’s player determines all other details, such as targets and so forth.

When determining summoned monster HP, roll the monster’s remaining HD and leave the dice on the table as they fall (or record the numbers per die). When the monster takes damage, the player may decide to which die the damage applies. If a die total is reduced to zero or less, remove the die and ignore any excess damage rather than process the spillover damage. Restore removed dice during downtime recovery. Healing a summoned monster allows rerolling some number of remaining HD rather than adding HP directly or restoring removed monster HD.

At the end of each combat round, spend 1 MP or the entity departs.

Starting with D&D

Does starting with D&D, compared to starting with other tabletop roleplaying games, lead to playing a wider variety of roleplaying games?

Ben and I ran a survey during the winter to explore attitudes and behaviors related to gateway RPGs (you can find the questions we asked here, along with some descriptive statistics). All of this data is correlational, so interpret any trends below keeping in mind that many unmeasured third variables could provide better explanations. Spoiler alert: after controlling for time-related variables, starting with D&D (compared to non-D&D games) is associated with playing a narrower variety of roleplaying games.

Also, note: I made a programming error in the survey which caused the play variety question to show up for only approximately half the participants. That kind of sucks, but even so the sample is still large (> 1000). The problem was that I based this survey on a previous survey as a template which had used random assignment. The good news is that the presentation seems to have been random. (In any case, you can find a link to the numeric data at the bottom of this post, if you want to perform your own analyses.)

Next, I am going to step through some analysis. The statistics are there if you want them, but I tried to write everything in English as well.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge)

First, here is a histogram showing the distribution of play variety (figure 1). Response labels were 1 = Strongly Disagree up to 7 = Strongly Agree.

Overall, participants reported having played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs (N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64), somewhat unsurprising for players with enough engagement to talk about games online. Based on the figure above, it looks like the distribution is censored, probably due to range restriction in the measurement. That is, the question we asked probably has trouble distinguishing between people at the high end of the distribution. Additionally, there may be some self-serving bias where participants overestimate the variety of games played. Some models (such as Tobit regression) can take censored data into account.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge)

What about the focal comparison of starting with D&D compared to starting with a non-D&D game? There is a marginal statistical difference, but the effect is quite small, which is clear if you look at a visualization superimposing the two distributions (figure 2). Using a t-test, the difference between means is 5.44 for non-D&D and 5.28 for any edition of D&D (t(947.326) = 1.67, p = .095). Tobit regression provides similar results for the effect of starting with D&D (b = -.249, SE = .136, t = -1.83, p = .067, 95% CI [-.516, .018]). The following two figures use kernel density estimation, which is (to oversimplify) similar to a histogram, but smoothed. (“Non-D&D” here includes “other” results, which was n around 500. I skimmed the free text response for those participants and there are only a handful which could be considered a D&D variant.)

What if we increase the granularity, distinguishing between TSR D&D and WotC D&D?

Figure 3 (click to enlarge)

These figures (3 and 4) might make it look like there is a clear split between the influence of TSR D&D compared to WotC D&D, however keep in mind that starting edition is confounded with date entering the hobby. WotC D&D came out more recently, so players that first land on WotC D&D tend to have started more recently (mean year = 2011) compared to players that started with TSR D&D (mean year = 1997). Dramatically, players also started much younger with TSR D&D (mean age = 12.37) compared to WotC D&D (mean age = 18.29). Both of these factors would give players starting with TSR D&D more time to explore other games, on average, so we should probably add both as covariates to control for that association.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge)

Indeed, when you control for the age/time related variables, you get an entirely different pattern (see figure 5), where starting with either generation of D&D (TSR or WotC) is associated with less variety playing other tabletop RPGs compared to starting with non-D&D games. Based on this data, I think this is the tentative conclusion. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a value judgment that I will leave to you. This could mean that people are more likely to be satisfied with D&D. It could also mean that people with more variety-seeking personalities are more likely to come across non-D&D games initially, and it is this trait, rather than initial exposure, which is responsible both for the exposure to the initial game and the decision to continue exploring other games. This result concerns individual behavior, not broader cultural influence; it is possible (and seems likely to me, though I lack supporting data) that broad brand awareness of D&D expands the overall player pool and so has a net positive effect on the absolute number of people exploring other games.

Figure 5 (click to enlarge)

The associations according to a Tobit regression including the covariates: TSR D&D (b = -.560, SE = .181, t = -3.09, p = 0.002, 95% CI [-.916, -.204]), WotC D&D (b = -.337, SE = .151, t = -2.23, p = 0.026, 95% CI [-.634, -.041]), year started playing covariate (b = -.066, SE = .008, t = -8.04, p < 0.001, 95% CI [-.082, -.050]), age started playing covariate (b = -.032, SE = .014, t = -2.37, p = 0.018, 95% CI [-.059, -.006]). (This seems to be a decent pass at an appropriate model, but notably the results are similar using standard OLS multiple regression.)

Here is the raw numeric data. Here is the Stata code I used for the analysis in this post. Please let me know if you have any questions, discover anything else, notice any errors, or have any suggestions.

Fatal Instinct

Palpatine’s advice

A wolf tears an adventurer from horseback, leaving the adventurer at 1 HP. A mind flayer death-lord looms over an unconscious adventurer with brain drill raised high. Some decisions confront the referee. Have the next wolf attack the unhorsed? Crack open that skull?

Ruthless actions can sometimes feel like an arbitrary referee choice, even if demanded by best move game logic. Considering the integrity of the imagined world, objectives other than pure ruthlessness may make more sense. For example, in the wild predators often attempt to separate the weak from a herd, withdrawing from combat with a prize, rather than following the completion-oriented impulse of reducing all opponents to zero hit points. In the context of a game, however, avoiding scorched earth can sometimes read as a pulled punch.

Conversely, the strongest game move can sometimes feel like the referee (rather than the integrity of the game world) has personally decided to kill your character in particular, even if it really does make the most sense in the game world context, unless the referee makes decisions in the same way for all opponents. This is because, as a matter of psychology, given incomplete information people infer intent from behavior. Also suboptimal.

Ideally, there will be some ruthless opponents, some merciful opponents, some strategic opponents, and some inscrutable opponents. As a referee, it is all too easy to fall into patterns. You might find all your opponents acting like they are playing battle chess or that adventurers keep getting captured.

Below are several approaches to determine opponent ruthlessness impartially.

Generally speaking, my principle is to follow the thread of imagined necessity until some aspect becomes uncertain and then call for a roll. And that is the way I would see deploying any of these approaches, probably transparently and with the player rolling the dice.

Situation-Agnostic Behavior Table

Roll d6:

  1. Vindictive sadistic gleeful viciousness
  2. Continues attacking the adventurer with intent to kill
  3. Changes target, attempts to attack a different adventurer
  4. Attempts to capture or restrain adventurer
  5. Maintains hostility, but switches to display of aggression/intimidation
  6. Objective met, cautious retreat (maybe something spooked the opponent?)

Reaction Roll

Image from some Mortal Kombat game

Make a reaction roll, using whatever system your base game chassis provides. Here are the classic outcome bands from B/X (page B24):

Monster Reactions

  • 2 Immediate Attack
  • 3-5 Hostile, possible attack
  • 6-8 Uncertain, monster confused
  • 9-11 No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
  • 12 Enthusiastic friendship

You would need to reinterpret these dispositions relative to the question of whether the opponent fights with maximum intent to kill or not, but that should be an easy exercise for the reader, and has the advantage of reusing a system.

Charisma Test

Call for the player of the threatened adventurer to make a charisma check. Failure means focused fire, attack to kill, whatever. Success within four points means continued attack but letting up or switching targets. Success by more than four points means the opponent has made a point and is looking for an out. Set the DC (if that is a thing in your ruleset) based on how mean the opponent is.

In addition to persuasiveness, charisma also represents force of personality, confidence, and so forth, attributes that may dissuade attackers both animal and intelligent. There were cougars in the hills where I grew up, and if you encountered a cougar the best approach was supposedly to stand still and make yourself as big as possible. I never had to test that, but I imagine that standing tall in the face of a wildcat would take some charisma.