The Littlest Con

Madison, South Dakota might seem like a typical small Midwestern town. In some ways it is. But it’s also the home of a Dakota State University and the school’s Computer Game Design program. The DSU Gaming Club puts on a gaming shindig every year, and this legendary event is known as Nanocon.

Nanocon isn’t just a gathering to facilitate gaming of all types, which it does. It’s also an educational event for the students at DSU. I was invited last year as a representative for Wizards of the Coast, among such design luminaries as the wise and skilled Jeff Tidball (a freelancer for Fantasy Flight, Atlas Games, and countless others) and the incorrigible cad Richard Dansky (White Wolf, Red Storm Entertainment, and novelist responsible for Firefly Rain). It was a great time, and I must have done something right, because they invited me back.

This year, the roster was filled with a few more experts, such as:

Jeff Tidball was back, bringing with him a playtest version of a board game based on the well-known RPG [name redacted]. I was lucky enough to play the prototype. To me, Jeff’s version captured the essence of the RPG better than the original did at times. Sure, like Jeff himself said, there were no intense roleplaying moments, but it as great themed fun. Perhaps we’ll revisit it when the game is released and my NDA no longer applies.

• Jeff McGann, lately of Red Storm but on his way to Irrational Games and work on Bioshock Infinite. Jeff knows a thing or a thousand about the “hellish world” AAA game design. Primary in my mind, as a designer of D&D, is his take on accessibility or lack thereof. Your game has to let people in, and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter how cool the second act is. Too few people will see that act. D&D has lacked real accessibility for long enough that the problem transcends editions. Maybe the new red box helps, but I don’t think Essentials does. My point here is that most D&D players are inducted into the game without having to climb the complexity curve alone. Maybe more on that later.

• Matthew Weise of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, researcher on game history with emphasis on Metal Gear Solid, zombies, and first-person RPGs. As a fan of stealth games, I appreciated Matt’s analysis of the Metal Gear franchise. See Game Verbiage below for more on Matt.

• Clara Fernandez, also of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, is a researcher on adventure games, puzzle design, and dream logic in games, as well as stories in simulated environments. Maybe it’s obvious to others how puzzle design for a game is so much like overall adventure design, but I found that focus insightful. Puzzles have to provide enough information and hooks to keep players moving forward and satisfied with that progress, otherwise frustration sets in. Without a social reason to continue investing, most players just quit. Our adventures need to do the same while providing enough “imagination space” to allow DMs and players to personalize the experience. I think this is what modern D&D adventures lack, as Mike Shea has intimated.

• Kevin Rohan, the Content Director for Silver Gryphon Games. He also knows how to mix genres in Savage Worlds. As a player of Grover, mean with a pair of .44 revolvers, in Kevin’s “Fist Full of Muppets” scenario, I should know. Kevin and I also gave a presentation about sandbox adventure design, and it was pretty cool. Try to create a scenario with a nonlinear progression for the proactive player characters. Then include villains that plan intelligently and move forward. The characters have to thwart the villain’s agenda, or meet their own goals, while the antagonists do the same. It’s a lot more interesting than monsters that wait to be killed in a site that changes only when PCs appear, let me tell you.

Back to School

I was in Madison early on Friday, so I had the pleasure of going to a couple classes. Jeff Howard—a professor at DSU and author of Quests—invited me to his class on combat systems and magic systems. The students presented various combat systems for their games, and I was allowed to give some feedback. I also got to go to a projects class and witness some damn cool games designs in progress, and the students were kind enough to explain the concepts to me, even though everyone else in the room already knew the project story and parameters.

How is this useful to you? One thing I felt over and over again, and said in various ways, was that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. That’s your elevator pitch right there. And if you don’t have an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. (Steve Jackson Games writer guidelines put it another way. You need to be able to write the back cover’s sell text for your game. If you can’t, work on your idea more.)

I also felt, here and when I was evaluating pitches for D&D Insider, that most budding designers need to push ideas further and go for meaningful play. Find the unique aspects of the vision you’re after, then push them to the fore. Make sure your mechanics and narrative reward the behavior you want. Every feature of your game should have a reason for some or all players to engage that aspect. If not, then the feature is a lie. This applies to DMing from monster design to encounter design to adventure design to campaign design.

All Fluxed Up

For the game room, I came up with a Gamma World scenario based on Madison, DSU, and South Dakota wildlife. I called it Deshoo Snipe Hunt, and here’s the premise: Winter is coming. The tiny plains village of Deeshoo is finishing up the harvest and the autumnal hunts before the alpha snows block the trade route to Soox Falls. It couldn’t be a worse time for raiders to move into an old bunker on the far side of Lake He-man. The Dragon Slayers United (DSU), Deeshoo’s elite protectors, went out to deal with the raiders a few days ago. They never came back. Now a giant sword-beaked fowl with an entourage of blood birds is picking off Deshoo hunters, residents, and livestock and carrying them east. Looks like a job for the DSU auxiliary. That’s you.

Cool thing is that I got to play this scenario twice, although only once all the way through. The first time through was with four players, all of whom had humanoid mutant characters except for the player of Sunflower, which was a sentient commune of dandelions. The second game included Steve Graham, a DSU professor; Allen Thiele one of the Nanocon organizers; Jeff Howard, Jeff Tidball, and Jeff McGann. After hearing Kevin Rohan and I speak on adventure design, the last Jeff was so eager to play in one of my tabletop games that he bought new dice. As if I weren’t ecstatic enough with a table full of smart gamers, Jeff’s enthusiasm was no small compliment coming from such a smart designer. Gamma World got positive reviews all around.

I also learned a few things about the game.

• It’s all right to allow players to assign an 18 and a 16 to ability scores even if they have origins that have the same ability score. In fact, it can work better than raising one score to 20 if the player wants or needs the character to use weapons. It also behooves you to make sure every character that lacks at-will mutant powers has a reasonable score in an ability that facilitates weapon attacks. You might even want to go to a 4d6-drop the lowest scheme for other ability scores. This still allows for some low rolls, which players in my games latched onto as roleplaying opportunities.

• 1d4+1 rolls on the Starting Gear table is about 1d4 too many. The Starting Gear Table has too few options for every character at the table to have three rolls on it. Instead, give each character one roll, then another roll or two on the Ancient Junk Table, and call it good. Believe me, the Ancient Junk table is where it’s at for fun gear possibilities. I mean, how else do you get an android to throw his wireless mouse and use his Interaction skill to pretend he just threw a high-tech grenade?

• Alpha Flux is awesome. You might look at the rules for changing Alpha Mutations and dislike the randomness and changeability, but it works. Further, the players not only get it, given a simple explanation of the Gamma World setting, they also seem to love it. They especially love when they’ve used one Alpha Mutation, roll a natural 1, and receive a new mutation for the trouble. I’d even go so far as to recommend putting terrain or monster powers in every few encounters to make Alpha Flux different and, preferably, more common.

As an aside, Alpha Flux can be used to explain any kind of weirdness in Gamma World. Gamma Terra provides narrative underpinning for real-life complications. For instance, if you’re running a campaign and a player fails to show, his or her character might simply disappear for a while in a reality-altering wave of flux. He or she might even reappear with full knowledge of what transpired in the supposed absence.

• Ignore Omega Tech card drawing. Instead, give out Omega Tech like treasure, even allowing enemies to use the tech first or have it on them. As an experiment, I ignored the drawing rules for Omega Tech and gave it out (randomly) piecemeal over the course of my encounters. Doing tech distribution this way allows the players to decide who takes which treasure. It also allows you to control, to an extent, the number of tech powers that might enter play at any one time. Plus, describing the discovery of Omega Tech is more fun this way.

Game Verbiage

Matt Weise gave a workshop that was, for lack of a better word, amazing. The premise is simple: Take an intellectual property, such as The Wizard of Oz. Then reduce that IP to the verbs related to it. From those verbs, you come to the essence of what a game about that IP might include in the gameplay. The results can be surprising.

I was playing my Welcome to Dark Sun adventure (for the seventh time) when Matt started, so I didn’t participate. (The players in that game did very, very well, which I think might have something to do with my communication as a DM.) I watched. Matt and I talked while the teams worked on their IPs (The Wizard of Oz and The A-Team).

The technique might seem simple. It is. But how many games miss this simplicity? An example we spoke of is the James Bond IP. How many James Bond games are about the varied aspects of spying? Most are themed shooters that involve only the most action-oriented aspects of the Bond franchise. These games miss the chance to incorporate other aspects of the IP, and perhaps thereby, miss the opportunity to attract a wider variety of players. Matt accurately pointed out that the Hitman games involve more deceptive tactics than numerous Bond games.

A lot of designers can benefit from learning and following this sort of thinking. I know I did.

Small Con Experience

Nanocon’s magic is in its intimacy. It presents a great opportunity to meet players and play games. As a guest, I also had the chance to mingle with all the other guests, as well as the faculty and organizers. That type of interaction with others who love games is hard to overvalue. Perhaps needless to say, I’m glad I went. I’ll say a little more about what I did there later.


  1. I love hearing about experiences at conventions. It makes me want to go. Hopefully, my first will be in a few months.

    Thanks for the “Back to School” info. I found that useful.

  2. The starting gear table is very weak, as I’ve discovered through a couple games now. d4+1 on a table with 20 options amongst 5-6 players piles up quickly, and so many of the entries aren’t interesting. When another player gets to the second keelboat and there’s almost no chance it’s going to come up during an adventure, there’s a problem. One player suggested that there just be a deck to ensure a good mix of different items, which could work. But I did the same thing you did and just let there be one roll on the table plus an ancient junk roll.

  3. Hah, I love seeing the Sioux Falls area get rpg representation! I lived and worked there (and in a nearby town in Minnesota) for four years, and it’s always a kick to see the region crop up in games.

    Monte Cook’s WoD did us the worst though; I opened up that book and realized I and all my friends were dead from the dimensional riftsplosion.

  4. Hey Chris, I love your blog.

    Could you please do a blog where you apply the IP Verbs exercise? I need to see it in action before I can fully conceive its utility.


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  2. […] back, talking about the littlest con, I said that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m […]