Carrot Design, Part 1: A Freelancer’s Challenge, From Needs to Rewards

I’m currently working on an article for Kobolds Quarterly that requires some deeper thinking about D&D 4e’s designs. As I pace around the house and outside on these crisp Canadian December days, I realize that I needed to do a more thorough analysis than I initially expected to beat an article into shape out of  a bunch of unfocused concepts.

While I won’t reveal what the article will be, I think that sharing my thought process to get my brain into a very specific design/development/writing cycle would be of interest to many of you.  Writing for a magazine is a rather perilous balancing act where the writer must limits the time and resources assigned to it while delivering a high level of quality and creating significant interest in readers.

So let’s dive in shall we?

The Needs of D&D players

In D&D 4e’s Dungeon Master Guide, player motivations are categorized thusly:

  • Acting: Explore a PC’s background and develop it further through role play and social encounter
  • Exploring: Seeks new experiences through interaction with the setting and it’s elements
  • Instigating: Making things happen and testing the game, includes making apparently bad choices
  • Power Gaming: Display power and become more powerful, gain cool new powers and items.
  • Slaying: Kick butts and take names, just because it’s cool to be badass, at least among friends
  • Storytelling: Be an active participant in events and tales that unfold beyond the level of characters and rules.
  • Thinking: Make careful choices and solve problems through analysis and optimal strategies.
  • Watching: Casually hang out with the gaming group for the social experience of it.

No player is assumed to be motivated by just one of those broad categories .  If I look over my players’ motivations and my own, I can easily tag each with at least 3 motivators.  For example, I’m very much about Acting, Instigating and Storytelling with a healthy touch of butt kicking.  Such categories are handy references to understand what makes players tick around any RPG table.

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe that a large majority of D&D 4e’s mechanics were designed, regardless of what’s written on the proverbial box, to cater to a subset of these RPG needs/motivations, namely Power Gaming, Slaying, and Thinking.  These motivations are addressed mainly through rewards (ex: XPs and levels, Powers and Magic Items, Tactical Combat, etc) that support and act as strong incentive for a play experience that’s focused on these three motivators.

That’s not to say that the other needs can’t be met, but as I mentioned previously, addressing them consistently requires DMs to bring forth particular skills in adventure design and other more social areas, skills that aren’t as clearly supported by the game.

Therein lies an opportunity.

So what’s a writer to do?

Now let’s assume that after reading my last post, I, as a gamer and freelance designer, want to stick around with the D&D franchise. I’m given a few choices.  I can keep fuelling the edition wars online by criticizing the absence of sufficient motivators for my needs. Alternatively, I can branch off to one of its close siblings, Pathfinder being the most popular, and seek the motivators I miss from 4e

I could also embrace this opportunity and write a Blog/magazine piece about developing new tools and rewards that will meet those needs. Guess which path I’m currently on?

In that last post, I told players to understand their needs and possibly seek outside of their game if they were not being met consistently.  I also mentioned that adequate hacking  of a game to address such needs was hard. Doing the same while writing new mechanics for a magazine, especially ones that push the D&D envelope in its less explored areas, is quite a challenge.

The writer of such pieces must walk fine lines between writing clever stuff no one will ever use, publish well-written but mostly unplaytested crap or, hopefully, provide a valid alternative that won’t be pushed away by the game’s other options.  All of this, given the very low rates gaming magazines can afford to pay, for an acceptable investment of time and resources from the writer’s part.

That’s why the landscape of freelance RPG Magazine writing is fraught with easily triggered traps.  Many of which are exceedingly well summarized by Graham’s Walmsley quote (picked from Ryan Macklin’s excellent blog post):

You can’t just give people +1 for fucking and expect it to work.

As Ryan says, the Walmsley Principle applies to much more than what the expletive usually stands for.  If you want your new material to be used by people, it must answer player needs and motivations in such ways that it will not be, at first glance, ignored as being useless, bland or just too plain boring to play with.  Nobody needs an extra +2 to damage or a +2 to climb checks, it’s been done to death.

Plus, you’ll be in direct competition with the colossal engine of gaming inertia that is the online Character Builder and its inability to accept user-derived/3rd party content.

So those lines the writer walks on just became finer, you need to write something that will stand out to the casual reader without stepping outside of the game’s balance boundaries.   You need to provide an alternative that is clever enough and simple enough mechanically that it can be used manually (or with easily configurable playing aids).

Yes, one could argue that articles make it every month that would fail my list of criteria and are “useless, bland and boring” as I described them. They could argue that articles are there to provide ideas for GMs, that one adopted mechanic/class/item per issue is already great.

They would be right, but I believe that the mold breakers I mentioned last week were among people who very aware of the traps and pitfalls of design and strove to go beyond the adequate to achieve excellence.

And while I may not achieve excellence when I write something, I always strive for it, regardless of the paycheck.  I’m willing to bet that’s partly why so many of the RPG designers I respect most are struggling to make a decent living.

Here’s the perp, now where’s my Reward?

So where is that damn fine line Phil? Have you finally stumbled, in these ravings of yours, onto a usable road map?

Actually, I think I have…

In my (fevered) mind, the path to writing great D&D 4e articles, especially those that encourage a play style that differs from the Out of the Box experience, is to understand the game’s fundamental rewards and play that system.  From there the writer must either design new elements that include them or design around them by creating new types of rewards that are compatible with the game’s balanced engine and don’t violate the Walmsley Principle.

In part 2, I’ll deconstruct D&D 4e’s reward system, explore their impact on the game and discuss popular, likely variants for each.  Thusly I would consider myself properly schooled to write my magazine article!

I’ll probably miss the deadline too… sigh.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas and happy holidays.


  1. Great article. I’m finding many of these pain points as well. This also explains a fair bit of the bloat in 4e, the thousands of feats and powers, hundreds of backgrounds, etc. Those are all the easy things to design and build. The other systems are much more difficult, especially the social. Add on top of this the two magic item systems, differences in class design between PHB1/PHB2 and PHB3/Essentials and, in my opinion, it gets even harder to design things for everyone. I feel like I need to start my blog posts with, “For Essentials characters,” “For rogues,” etc.

  2. @SarahDarkmagic: Thanks for the kudos! I think that designing for “everyone” is one huge gaping hole from which the fledging D&D designer must learn to circumvent. If you’ll allow the campy reference, I’ll quote from “Robots” and say that you one must find a specific Need and address. The best source of such needs is to go and choose one of your own that aren’t being catered to be it playstyle/missing artifact or set of powers and design away!

  3. @Sarah Darkmagic: After clicking on your “last blog” link above, I discovered that I could add you to my RSS feed. Then I scanned your most recent posts and found a whole bunch of nifty content to read. And now my brain is happy! (And of course I like you too, Monsieur Chatty.)

  4. I will agree with addressing needs. To adapt a philosophy I’m familiar with:

    There are four people: Everybody, Anybody, Somebody, and Nobody. If you design for Everybody, don’t be suprised if Everybody doesn’t like it. Anybody could like it. Somebody might like it. In the end, though, you can’t please Everybody. Anybody can have an opinion. Somebody might say something. If you try to please Everybody, Nobody will like it.

  5. Looking outside of the system for inspiration for your chosen system is the best way to understanding and making your chosen rules system part of your game.

  6. I like this article, and some cursory glancing through your blog tells me you’ve got a good head for design. But, I don’t completely agree with your analysis of 4th edition. Since the counterpoints came out to about 500 words, I posted them as a blog today:

    Will definitely keep reading, and good luck on improving one of 4th editions weaker aspects!

  7. >>> understand the game’s fundamental rewards and play that system. From there the writer must either design new elements that include them or design around them by creating new types of rewards that are compatible with the game’s balanced engine <<<

    Very well said, Phil! That really gets to the heart of things, I think.

  8. I find that storytelling section amusing “Be an active participant in events and tales that unfold beyond the level of characters and rules.”. Yeah the first thing I’m thinking about when enjoying telling a story is the level to which the characters and rules are not involved. : P

    Probably needs a less “everything-else drawer” definition, but that may well explode it into a hundred different ones, so I’ll leave that for someone else to spring!

    Your main point’s not fully clear to me, but I’m willing to wait for you to get a run up at explaining it. Look forward to your next post.

  9. I struggle with the “well-written but mostly unplaytested crap” because I find that there’s not enough time to playtest every little idea I have. Often, I’ll write something in hopes that someone will try it, and even if it doesn’t work well, will adapt it until it does. Great article, really got me thinking.

  10. I have been away for some time so I haven’t answered comments here and I apologize. I will tackle a few while I cogitate part 2.

    @The Opportunist: Classic aphorism that’s wholly appropriate in the circumstances.

    @Da’Vane: The sheer amount of incredible Tabletop gaming concepts (which I jargonize as “tech”) that’s been created in the last decade is outstanding. It’s a huge field to borrow from and push design in new directions by cross-pollinating all of these ideas together and with older, more established concepts.

    Oh and thanks for the link on your blog. It was an interesting read!

    @Patrick: There’s absolutely nothing I love more than someone writing their own blog post to present a differing view about my own opinions, which are never set in stone. I’ll go and comment back on your site as soon as I’m done here. Thanks for the link!

    @Rafe: Thanks. Understanding rewards is the key insights I got from my discussions with Luke and exploring his games so far. It’s great “tech” just there. Applying it to push design of other games is fundamental in my opinion 🙂

    @Brian: I don’t think that it’s possible to fully playtest something you write for a magazine, not unless you are publishing one of your own campaign elements you’ve been using for some time or that you don’t care about the “effort vs payment” coefficient. That’s why I think that having a solid understanding of the deeper design elements of a game helps the writer create better material with less effort.

    Heaven knows some of the stuff I published hasn’t been fully tested and I’m not sure people used any of my stuff.

    But then again, many people just like reading new material to mine it for nuggets of ideas and possible inspiration. And that’s quite fine.

  11. I’ve found, now that I’m actually a blogger (Totally new concept for me, my blog’s so new!), half the fun of being a blogger is the community, and you’re not a community if you’re not talking to the community.

  12. @Patrick: I could not say it any better. Welcome to the big family! 🙂


  1. New post about writing D&D 4e material for a gaming magazine: Carrot Design: From Needs to Rewards

  2. RT @chattydm: New post about writing D&D 4e material for a gaming magazine: Carrot Design: From Needs to Rewards

  3. RT @ChattyDM: New post about writing D&D 4e material for a gaming magazine: Carrot Design: From Needs to Rewards

  4. Carrot Design: From Needs to Rewards, Part 1 from Critical Hits » RPG #RPG

  5. RT @chattydm: New post about writing D&D 4e material for a gaming magazine: Carrot Design: From Needs to Rewards

  6. Carrot Design: From Needs to Rewards, Part 1

  7. […] my profession, I have also been reading how professionals like myself are struggling with their own drives for excellence in their writing schedules, and discussing how expertise and authority are different forms of […]

  8. […] part 1, of this  series, I tackled what I thought were the main challenges of writing articles for D&D 4e in gaming […]