Running 4E for Your Magic Buddies: Timmy, Johnny, Spike, Vorthos, and Melvin

All right, if you’re strictly a D&D player and you have no idea who the five people in the title are, go here, then here and educate yourself.  I’ll wait.

(I know we’re only one sentence in, but indulge me in a digression: a lot of what MaRo says about design is quite interesting for optimization work.  I’ll probably whip up a post on elegance at some point.)

Back?  Good.  So now you’re familiar with psychographic profiles, as well as understanding what I mean when I use their names.   “But Tsuyo,” you say, “those are psychographic profiles for Magic: the Gathering!  What do they have to do with D&D?”  Well, I’m glad you asked!  The correct answer here is “just about everything.”

See, Magic was originally supposed to be a quick-play version of D&D.  (Seriously.)  As such, they have and always have had a lot in common — I’m a bit of a fogey when it comes to Magic now, but I hear there are even creatures that can level up.  One of the things I think they share are the three psychographic profiles and their two motivational companions.

So what do these psychographic profiles look like in the 4E world?


Let’s look at MaRo’s definition of Timmy:

The first question I always ask of a profile is: what does this profile want when they play Magic? Timmy wants to experience something. Timmy plays Magic because he enjoys the feeling he gets when he plays. What that feeling is will vary from Timmy to Timmy, but what all Timmies have in common is that they enjoy the visceral experience of playing. As you will see, Johnny and Spike have a destination in mind when they play. Timmy is in it for the journey.

One of the great myths about Timmy is that he is young and inexperienced. I think this comes from the fact that a non-Timmy (particularly a Spike) looking at a Timmy play reads his choices as those of inexperience. Why else would he play overcosted fatties or coin flipping cards or cards that, simply put, aren’t that good? Because Spike misses the point. Timmy plays with cards that make him happy; cards that create cool moments; cards that make him laugh; cards that allow him to hang with his friends; cards that cause him to have fun. Winning and losing isn’t even really the point (although winning is fun – Timmy gets that). For Timmy, the entire reason to play is having a good time.

Cool, we can work with that.

Timmy likes things that are fun, essentially.  Timmy likes things that make big booms, or do really weird stuff, or may not even be that good, but are tons of fun to play.  Timmy’s the guy at the table that’s playing a kobold or a gnome; Timmy’s the guy that chose his level 29 Barbarian Daily pretty much at random because to him it’s Rage Strike food; Timmy’s the guy that plays the Chaos Sorcerer because not knowing what’s going to happen is hysterical; and Timmy’s the guy that’ll pay for pizza every week because he likes hanging out with the group.  And none of these are bad things.

This is all pretty typical Magic stuff, but there’s one big, almost Timmy-exclusive realm in D&D that Magic doesn’t have.  That’s theoretical optimization.  “Madness!” you exclaim.  “TO is the realm of Johnnies who make combos, or Spikes who want to win!”  Well, no.  That’s not entirely untrue, but the fact of the matter is that Johnny doesn’t really care about the goal of TO and Spike is looking at your build and saying “Impressive numbers, but your defenses are too low.”  TO is about getting big, big numbers, and that is definitely a Timmy thing.  Johnny applauds your methodology but is looking for a more cohesive whole; Spike thinks that you can’t afford to make the trades you are for an extra +1, and notices that you’re not LFR legal anyway.

Now, everyone but the Timmies go away for a second; I’ve got to have a quick word with them.  (This is mostly adapted from what MaRo said, but D&D is a different game, so I can’t just quote him.)

Timmies: congratulations.  You are the most likely people to walk away from the table smiling, and considering we’re all doing this for entertainment, that’s really, really good.  I also happen to think that you all make the best DMs.  That’s a matter of opinion, but my reasoning is this: you understand fun best; therefore, you’ll be able to help other people find it the best.  Now go forth and Rage Strike, and don’t feel a second of guilt about it.


Again, we go to the MaRo:

So why does Johnny play Magic? Because Johnny wants to express something. To Johnny, Magic is an opportunity to show the world something about himself, be it how creative he is or how clever he is or how offbeat he is. As such, Johnny is very focused on the customizability of the game. Deck building isn’t an aspect of the game to Johnny; it’s the aspect.

One of the strengths of Magic is the ability for players to imbue much of themselves in their decks. When you play Monopoly you don’t get emotionally attached to the board. But with Magic, your deck becomes an extension of yourself. When your deck wins, you win. When your deck gets complimented, you get complimented. It is this principle that drives Johnnies.

In Magic, Johnnies are the deckbuilders.  In D&D, Johnnies are the character makers.

This one is the one everyone’s gonna jump on and say that optimizers are, and to a certain degree, that’s true.  But Johnny is more than that.  Johnny’s the inventive one, the one that can churn out character sheets with a speed that would make the Character Builder envious.  (And Johnny’s the one most likely to buy Insider for the CB alone.)  That guy who retrains almost every level?  That’s Johnny.  That guy who shows up every week almost hoping for a wipe so he can make a new character?  That’s Johnny.  That guy who absolutely has to own every single book WotC releases?  That’s Johnny too.  And none of these are bad things.

In the same way that Johnny Magic is a deck artist, Johnny 4E is a character artist.  There are definite downsides to that: I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the player that punched an old DM of mine for killing his character was a Johnny.  (True story.)  But at their best, Johnnies are the ones who create characters that people talk about for years after the campaign they played in — for whatever reason.  Sometimes it was because they were powerful; sometimes it was because they fit the setting exactly.  But it’s always about the sheet in front of them, and generally, that’s pretty epic.

Okay, Johnny and me are getting some private time.  Everyone else, skip on down.

Johnnies: dude, I totally sympathize.  Having an attention span that falls somewhere around the mean between “hyperactive child” and “goldfish,” I can understand how frustrating it can be to have to be stuck doing the same thing for so long.  But hey — take pleasure in what you’ve got.  Timmy might be rolling more dice, and Spike might be more optimal, but I repeat: when stories are told about this campaign later, it’ll be your character this, your character that.  And that’s awesome.


Oh, can I feel the controversy brewing.  Here we go.

So why does Spike play? Spikes plays to prove something, primarily to prove how good he is. You see, Spike sees the game as a mental challenge by which he can define and demonstrate his abilities. Spike gets his greatest joy from winning because his motivation is using the game to show what he is capable of. Anything less than success is a failure because that is the yardstick he is judging himself against.

Spike 4E is just like Spike Magic in that he plays to win.  That’s right, I said it: You Can Win D&D.

D&D is, hypothetically, a game without end.  Campaigns, however, have some kind of scripted end — generally along the lines of “kill the BBEG.”  You can win that.  You can win a combat, or a skill challenge, or an argument with the miller’s daughter.  It is possible to win D&D, and that is what Spike wants to do.  Spike is the guy asking all the questions, calling out tactical maneuvers in combat, or just making sure that the group doesn’t get too far off-track.  Incidentally, he’s also the one who’s most likely to like the RPGA. And none of these are bad things.

I talked up above about how Timmy likes theoretical optimzation.  Spike is the practical optimizer.  He’s the one most likely to read the entire campaign document in order to create a character tailor-made for what he sees the campaign challenges to be.  Spike is the guy who makes up the expected attack/defense/DPR charts and then abides by them religiously.  He’s also the type of guy that is utterly and totally committed to seeing the bad guy fall, and his character probably is too.

Now, everyone else I wanted to have a word with in private.  I’m gonna talk to the Spikes, but this time, I want everyone else to listen to.  Ready?

Spike, you are the reason that D&D still exists.  Even if the Johnnies bought every book in the world, no one would play the game without you.  Why?  Because when it comes down to it, you’re the only person who cares about the plot.  Johnny loves his character, and Timmy’s just in it for the entertainment… it’s up to you to move everyone along.  You do that because you want to see that corrupt mayor fall, or you want to end the encounter, and people might hate you for that — “it’s just a game!  Don’t be competitive, you’re ruining it for everyone!”  Just remind them of this: the only player who’s likely to say, “Guys, we’re getting a little distracted — can we get back to the game?” is a Spike.

Vorthos and Melvin

I don’t think I have to explain these guys to you: one’s the guy who’s in it for the fluff, the other one’s the guy who’s in it for the crunch.  It’s worth remembering, though: the Vorthos/Melvin axis is different than the Timmy/Johnny/Spike one.  (Axis is a misnomer for the latter, but you get my point.)  As such, I want to look at what they look like in combination with Timmy, Johnny and Spike.


Vorthos/Timmy — You know the guy who speaks in accents?  This is him.  A V/T has tons of fun just sort of messing around with the world he’s in.

Vorthos/Johnny — The guy with the twenty-page backstory.  A V/J channels his creative energies into the fluff side of his character, meaning that the guy probably has a more detailed life story than you do.

Vorthos/Spike — V/S is, out of everyone, the guy most likely to remember what the hell the group is actually supposed to be doing.  He actually wants to find the Lost Gewgaw of McBob.

Melvin/Timmy — “Guys, look at how many dice I’m rolling!” “Check it out, I deal like a hundred damage with this attack!”

Melvin/Johnny — The guy who’d rather play with the Character Builder than an actual computer game.

Melvin/Spike — A DM’s blessing — the guy who wants to win combats and skill challenges, and is therefore the most likely to try and keep everyone on task during those events.

That’s all I got for today.  Join me at some point in the future, when I blame WotC for ruining my game.

Until then, may you always… I don’t know, rip off MaRo when you get bored enough to wire out like 2,000 words.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm  Comments (2)  

Reversing Course On D&D 4th Edition

Now, let me make one thing clear: I still don’t like 3.5 very much either.  But I’m not as excited about 4E as I once was.  Here’s why.

I’ve been playing Star Wars SAGA for a good long while now.  Now, normally what I do is treat a game as a sort of “primary:” I play lots of games, but I focus most of my attention on one system or another.  I’ve had a few of these over the years, but only four for any significant length of time: D&D 3.5, D&D 4E, Shadowrun 4th, and Star Wars SAGA.  The merits of 3.5 have been discussed to death elsewhere, and honestly, if you’re reading this you probably have an opinion on it.  Suffice it to say that I don’t like it as much as any of the other above systems.  Also, Shadowrun is a very different style of game than the others; it’s not d20, and lends itself to a bit more of a “beer and pretzels” feel.  (Note: this is a very good thing, if ya ask me.)

So that just leaves SAGA and 4E.  Now, both games are d20 system games, both are by the same company, and both have similar mechanics — SAGA was actually a testing ground for a lot of the 4E mechanics.  (Compare 3.5–SAGA–4E skills, for instance.)  You’d think they run in the same way.  And, well, they sort of do.  But there’s a huge difference between them, and that’s the level system.

See, the thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth about 4E?  It’s not what a lot of people complain about.  I don’t think the classes are generic in terms of flavor; I don’t think that there aren’t enough options to play the character you want.  I don’t think that having the classes work off the same mechanics was a bad idea; as it happens, I still think it’s a good one.  No, what bothers me is this: there’s just not a huge difference between what a level 1 character does and what a level 30 character does.

Okay, WHAT?  That is a pretty hefty claim to make.  I mean, people are dealing tons more damage and attacking with a much higher to-hit, right?   Well… yeah.  And that’s really about it.  Because of the way the system works, you’ll only ever have four powers of each type.  And while you get new and exciting ones while leveling up, they’re basically just higher-level versions of the same thing.  Your character may be getting more objectively powerful, but to me it seems that he’s just running faster on a treadmill.

Add to this the fact that feats and class abilities have been de-emphasized in terms of power, and you get this system where you level up really fast and barely even notice.  It doesn’t help that since feats are so terrible, you’re either taking from an incredibly small set or picking stuff you’ll never, ever use.  The end result is that you just don’t notice the difference in your character’s abilities, and that’s (for me) one of the most fun parts of the game.

Note that there’s more to abilities than mechanics.  I work off the basic assumption that we’re all roleplaying because we want to play characters that can do stuff.  Maybe not awesomely, maybe not as well as other people in the setting, but you wanna be able to swing a sword, shoot a gun, cast a spell, or use the Force starting from day one.  And then, as your character becomes more experienced (and comes into more Experience), they start to be able to affect the world around them in different ways.  That’s what’s not reflected in 4E: your character, in a large way, never changes.  And compared to something like SAGA — where every single level offers new and exciting change — that’s just not very interesting to me.

So I’ve given up 4E for SAGA.  And I couldn’t be happier.

Published in: on February 6, 2009 at 5:20 pm  Comments (1)  

DMing and the Dao

This is a repost of an article I wrote a while ago on the forums. I never wrote the follow-up, but it was well-recieved and I like it. As such, it’s included here.

Besides, I may write the followup some day.


I was looking at one of my favorite sites, and I realized that it has some good DMing advice contained within.

And if any of you doubt it, well…

Ordinary people think the “Great Tao” is actually useless. That everyone thinks it is useless, is proof of how great it is. If it was the kind of thing ordinary people thought was useful, it would have disappeared long ago.

So, our first quote:

Heaven and Earth last and last. Why do they last so long? Because they are not self-serving!

Now, what may we take home from this?

Lesson #1: A Campaign is NOT All About You!

This is a pretty basic lesson, and most DMs here know about it already. It’s worth repeating endlessly, though: if you’re in it for your enjoyment alone, you should’t be DMing. A DM who makes a storyline for his own enjoyment and forces the characters through it exactly the way he wants isn’t a DM, he’s an auther — and a cruel one at that.

Which brings us to quote #2:

Living plants are flexible; in death, they become dry and brittle.

Therefore, stubborn people are disciples of death, but flexible people are disciples of life.

Lesson #2: Be Flexible

This is related to lesson number one, but is important enough to be its own. A game without flexibility is a game without fun. This is true of everything from plots to houserules: if you force a player to play with rules that they don’t like, they won’t have much fun at all. Likewise, if no one’s having fun with the current story, it may be time to think about a change of pace.

However, I’m not saying let the players walk all over you. Indeed…

The more regulations there are, the poorer the people; the more weapons there are, the greater the chaos.

Lesson #3: Be Flexible, But Don’t Be TOO Flexible

Now, I’m all for allowing things in a campaign. Even if it doesn’t fit, work with your player to find a way to adapt it. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should allow every mechanic into a game — some just shouldn’t be in there. I’m not going to list what I think they are, because nothing is more a matter of opinion over what’s broken and what isn’t, but I think everybody reading this thread has at least one thing in mind by now. I give you permission not to allow that in your games. 😛

Finally, the simplest and most important:

If you don’t trust people, people will not trust you.

Lesson #4: Trust Your Players

Normally this maxim is thrown around in Op vs. RP arguments, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Trust your players not to do things inappropriate to the game, and they’ll trust you not to ban things they bring or do outright. This goes back to lesson two, but again, it deserves its own. A game that lacks trust quickly becomes DM versus players — the players don’t trust the DM to play fairly and the DM doesn’t trust the players not to wreck his campaign.

And there you have it. I’m considering making a list for players, too — Lao Tzu had some good advice to those who say “I must have this in the game or I shall PERISH!” If this gets a good reception, look for it over on the “What’s a Player to Do?” boards soon!

Published in: on October 15, 2006 at 12:04 am  Comments (2)  

Bell Curve Rolling and Threat Ranges

“Consider – One: Probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two: Probability is not operating as a factor. Three: We are now held within un-, sub-, or supernatural forces.”
–Guildenstern, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

So I was reading the bell-curve rolling rules here, and I had a thought:

How good would range multipliers be under them?

For instance, let’s take everyone’s favorite, the Disciple of Dispater with attached Improved Critical. The table in the SRD seems to imply that you multiply the old threat range and then calculate the new one. All right, let’s try the quadrupled threat range of a scimitar: 9-20/x2, a 60% probability.

We then run the handy Harlequin Jones Dice Probability Calculator for 3d6. Then, we start adding results until we hit .6 or more.

The exact chance of hitting a 14-18 is .16204, which means that 18-20 weapons got a boost and 17-20 weapons got a hit, as they say. 20 by itself takes the hit they indicate as well… but what they DON’T say is that 19-20 is only .0925, or 9.25% — a hit of .75%, which in bell curve rolling is a heck of a lot. Shafting 19-20 even further is the fact that taking Improved Critical only adds less than 7% to your threat range, as opposed to the previous 10%. Weapons with a range of 20 (Greataxe, for example) are actually .0463, meaning that they too take a hit to IC strength — down from +5% to +.0462, or 4.6%. This is a better increase than 19-20 gets.

The percentage increase for 18-20 goes down as well, by a little over 5%. (.05279, to be exact.) But here’s the thing: even with this drop, you’re still at a net advantage over normal rolling. This isn’t true of any other range… and, as we get closer and closer to the top of the bell curve, this is more and more and more of an advantage.

Now, let’s get back to the DoD. He has a threat percentile of 60. His cap is either going to be 11-18 (.5) or 10-18 (.625). Which one do we choose?

Well, the obvious analouges here are 18-20 and 17-20. 18-20 has a threat percentile of 15%, whereas 17-20 has a threat percentile of 20%. A 14-20 has a .16204 chance of occuring, while a 13-20 has a .25926. A 15-18 occurs .0925. So, we find the deviation from each to find how WotC rounded.

.0925 – .15 = -.0575
.16204 – .15 = .01204

.16204 – .20 = -.03796
.25926 – .20 = .05926

So in both cases the plan was to go with the least deviation from the norm. This means that a converted 9-20 threat range is .625, or 10-18.

Now, stop a minute. Think about that.

In terms of probability, that’s a bit of an upgrade — 2.5%. But in practical terms, as mentioned, rolls will cluster around 10 and 11. This means that you’re going to be threatening a good deal more than under the other system — meaning that a Disciple with a large STR score, a greatpick and someone willing to give him lots of burst enhancements is going to cause a great deal of trouble. It also means that he’ll be critting more than “equivalent builds” under the old system.

For example, a Dervish with a threat range of 15-20 will critical for about the same amount as a DoD, since his Dervish Dance gives him twice as many attacks. (Usually more due to TWF and all, but let’s say twice as many for the sake of comparison.) However, in bell urve rolling the DoD takes a jump in power, as you’ll probably roll a lot closer 10 and 11 — inside the DoD’s threat range, but not the Dervish’s. (This is reflected in terms of their probability; in bell curve, a Dervish has about a 25% chance of critting, but the Disciple has 62.5% — a diference of 37.% as compared to the original difference of 30%.)

What does all this mean, though?

Well, in the bigger picture, it makes bell curve rolling a much better choice for crit range specialists. That’s nice, because it also decreases CL checks and increases general sucess rates on saving throws — meaning that the environment is more melee-friendly. The end result for me is that I think I’m going to be trying it sometime soon — if for no other reason than my local Walgreens sells lighters with 3d6 in ’em. 😀

Published in: on October 14, 2006 at 11:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Actor’s Advice to the GM

There are two things I do with myself outside ofRPGs: acting and tae kwon do. When I figure out how to apply tae kwon do to RPGs, I’ll write about that. Until then, you’ll just have to be satisfied with this.


What could an actor possibly have to say to a GM?

The answer is, a lot. As someone who does a lot of both, there are several things in common — or at least, enough similarities that you could apply a lot of acting advice to GMing.

Let’s start with a basic one here: always write in pencil. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like acting or GMing, but there’s a good reason for doing it. In acting, when you “mark up” a script to figure out how to play a character, you always do it in pencil. Why? If you change your mind later, you can go back and change it! It’s easier with campaign notes to just scritch it out and continue — you’re not limited in terms of space like with a script — but it’s a good habit to get into anyway, and will help you remember that your world is dynamic.

Got that? All right then, let’s move on.

When you’re playing a character in a scene, it’s really important that you have something called arc. If you’re playing Othello, and all you do through the whole scene is be angry, I can guarentee you that no one in the audience will be paying attention. You need to have development — your character needs to go somewhere. This is also true of GMing, buti n terms of your story: like a good character, make sure your story goes somewhere. A great example of how NOT to do this is a lot of modern horror movies: it’s just people being killed over and over and over. The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, had a progressive story that just gradually got more freaky. If you’ll notice, most people will point to it as having the better story.

This next tidbit is actually similar to an article that was posted on Treasure Tables, and was actually a good deal of inspiration for this article. Over there, Martin defines all adventures as having a Want, a Challenge and a Cool Factor. Us actors, on the other hand, know that characters have to have a Want, an Obstacle, and an Action — if you’re missing any of those things, not only will you not be believable, you’ll be boring. Sound familiar? Your characters need to want something, they need to overcome something to get it, and they need a way of doing it — preferably, a cool way. Keep this in mind when designing adventures, and everything will go much more smoothly.

Speaking of running smoothly: you know what really sucks? Stopping the whole game because of an argument over how somehting should work. This is a game! You’re supposed to have fun! And, as any actor will tell you, suspension of disbelief is your friend! If, in a show, the actor oes something to make the audience realize that he’s just an actor in the show, everyone gets really unsettled, then mad, then bored. This is something you do not want. The moral of the story is: sometimes, you should just overlook unrealistic things in favor of story flow.

Now, a lot of my training has been in improvisation. The next two tips are going to be grounded mostly in that.

I’ve got a secret to tell you: even if you think you can’t improvise, you can. Need to improvise? Rationalize! The first step is to say the most random thing you can think of. In D&D terms, there’s a random adventure idea table on pages 44-45 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Now: rationalize it! For instance, let’s say you rolled a 55: “Adventurers exploring a dungeon haven’t returned in a week.” Well, why haven’t they come back? The easiest explanation is that they died. Well… how? Uhm… a lich? Okay, bucko, what was a lich doing in that dungeon? Recovering an ancient artifact, maybe? Hey, maybe that’s why the adventurers went there in the first place: to stop the lich from getting the artifact!

There you have it, folks: an adventure. The PCs need to stop the evil lich from getting his hands on a powerful magical artifact. Their first clue comes when a random townsperson tells the party that they haven’t seen Group X in a while. That’s a lot more than you knew five minutes ago, huh?

Finally, here’s a tip about DM-PC relationships: give and take. There is nothing more annoying as an actor (and usually as an audience member) than having whoever you’re working just refuse to acknowledge what you’re saying. Exempli gratia: Your parner says something to establish that the two of you are are a bus stop. You remark as to how no bus appears to be in sight. Your partner then boards a bus. (Not the best example, but you get the idea.) This is something that should not be happening in your group. Players (and GMs!) should listen to each other and accept the input — in terms of setting, character, and action — of the game. There’s a rule in acting, taught ot me by one of the best actors I’ve ever known: “Acting is listening and responding appropriately.” You can just replace acting in that sentence and it still reads true: roleplaying is listening and responding appropriately. Trust me, after last night I can tell you: OOC jokes get old really fast.

There you have it. Now, don’t you wish you had payed attention in drama class?

Published in: on October 8, 2006 at 10:29 pm  Comments (2)