Q&A with Harbinger of Doom 1

This post comes out of a request from Patreon backer Benjamin Ybarra. Many thanks to everyone who contributed questions! If you like this kind of quick-hit content, all you have to do is send me more questions, by whatever means seems best to you.

Tomas Giminez (@TGiminezDM) asks: Which is your best tip for new game designers?

I’m going to mention but largely skip the two normal best pieces of advice – play lots of games in every medium and read widely – not because they’re wrong but because I want to say something slightly newer.

Instead: Do everything you possibly can to make risks and rewards that players face easy to explain or outright self-explanatory. One of the most common issues I saw in Metatopia playtests is that players didn’t understand what a situation threatened, or what the payoff of a good thing could potentially be, so they didn’t make the most interesting decisions available to them. They went with what they understood.

Geoffrey Fortier asks: Expanding on “magic items” and “spells” above, I’d love to see some more examples “recipes” for PCs creating magic items, and how to handle spell research by PCs.

Colin has actually done some great work on that topic over in Tribality and in his own blog. I’ve been working on and off for the better part of the last decade to figure out what I think an engaging crafting system for tabletop games should look like, and I still don’t quite have it. I know that it isn’t quest-driven (I want to make a mystic orb of Noonah; the DM tells me to go to these three locations to gather components), and it isn’t a raw cash + time -> item conversion.

Spell research basically comes in two modes, both of them valid. In one, wizards (and this really only works for wizards) spend time and (?) to add a new, established spell to your spellbook when you don’t have a scroll or another spellbook to copy from. In the other, any caster class wants to develop a new spell that doesn’t currently exist, which might just be a marginal improvement or parameter adjustment on a spell that does. For both of these, I think D&D doesn’t have a suitable existing mechanism, but what kind of speaks to me is a game in which everyone earns both standard XP and also Research Points or the like as a reward from adventures. Extra Research Points are quasi-loot from examining weird statues, forbidden tomes, and so on during adventures. The idea is very rough at this point, obviously!

Jeremiah McCoy (@technoir) asks:

  • What things in gaming are a mystery to you?
    • A whole lot of things! I’m mystified by Vampire (Masquerade or Requiem) – the one Dark Ages Vampire game I played a session and a half in notwithstanding. I’ve gotten such an impression of a cutthroat game (particularly from the LARP) that I don’t get how vampire PCs in a tabletop coterie relate to one another. Same for Werewolf (Apocalypse and Forsaken), and a bunch of other games. My phrase for this is that I want to see the game through the eyes of someone who loves it.
  • Are there things that you maybe didn’t get into and seem daunting to dig into now?
    • Amber Diceless, in particular. I’ve played two sessions of Nobilis (one 2e, one 3e), and I’m no closer to understanding the longer-term dynamics of diceless play. Reading about it just isn’t helping the idea take shape in my mind. Amber Diceless was such a formative experience for a bunch of the designers and players I respect most that I would love to Get It, but it’s absolutely daunting.
  • Are there some that you just still have no interest in so never bothered looking into them?
    • Sort of? I’m willing to try to work up interest in almost anything. The only real difference is whether I work up interest on my own and leap into the deep end of running it without playing in someone else’s game first (D&D, Mage: the Awakening, Over the Edge) or decide that I do need to play in someone else’s campaign before I could run my own (basically everything else). But gonzo, everyone-knows-the-rules-are-garbage games like (non-Savage) RIFTS are probably never going to be worth my time to commit to a game.

William Kotas asks: How do you feel the advent of Live Play (Critical Roll, D4, The Adventure Zone, etc.) has impacted the cultural conception of Role Playing?

I think Live Play has gotten a lot of people past the “what even is this thing?” stage of introduction to roleplaying, smoothing the way even more with the addition of charismatic people. Including actors like Joe Mangianello and Deborah Ann Woll is a huge boon to shut down an “isn’t this just for nerds tho?” argument.

There are more incredible shows out there than any one fan could watch or listen to, but with Critical Role as one of the biggest gateways, I think the next five to ten years of D&D are going to be dominated by people whose first impression of D&D and all of gaming involves intricate backstories, meticulous plotting, and deep characterization. In the next 2-5 years, I’d expect a solid 10-20% of the people coming into the hobby to branch out from D&D, creating a huge boom (compared to existing fanbases) for other tabletop games, especially Call of Cthulhu, which is already surging in Europe and Japan. The effect will also be super strong for games that are already D&D-adjacent, like 13th Age – it’s self-consciously a different way to generate the best parts of the D&D experience.

D&D’s dominance over the market, on the other hand, is probably secure for at least the next 10-15 years. I have no concept of how badly D&D would have to shit the bed to lose that absolute dominance before then.

Tim Baker (@phantom_tim) asks:

  • How would you think about a house rule to encourage players to try more stunts in 5e, given its tight action economy?
    • In principle, I think this is a good goal, if a challenging one. I’d want to see a meaningful role for Athletics and Acrobatics without adding a skill check as another chance to “miss” with your attacks, and I’d want to see a way for casters to get in on the fun. The latter is complicated: on one hand, casters already have the most interesting round-by-round choices, as they choose between all available spells. On the other, stunts are about making the environment part of your action choice and narrative, and you absolutely want everyone engaged with that.
  • Do you foresee any potentially game-breaking consequences if 5e initiative was randomized each round?
    • It depends on how far from original design intent things have to get before you call it “broken.” You’re going to create situations where effects that last until the end of (someone’s) next turn have either twice as much effect as usual (because the caster acted again before the target did) or no effect (because the next person to act was the target). The pseudo-solution to that would be to deeply game the initiative system, which I personally regard as undesirable because it isn’t within character knowledge. If you’re okay with those outcomes, then sure, go ahead with randomizing initiative every round, but the appeal of doing so is lost on me from first principles.

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One thought on “Q&A with Harbinger of Doom

  • Lawson

    Research points are a neat idea. I think cyphers from Numenera could work too. Either as an additional source for research points or as a replacement for them. Like needing to gather a certain number of cyphers to make a more permanent item. Hmmm. Discoveries and cyphers as crafting currency.

    Vampire: Here’s how I see it. The game can be pretty political, but you still have an “adventuring party” of superpowered undead. The characters are together as a special group of executors for the minority government of the Camarilla. So everyone’s working together to achieve a thing while also trying to manipulate the situation to one’s own benefit.

    Stunts: I think I’d ask the player how much they want to risk and use the result of an attribute check as a modifier. So if the player wants to gain Advantage on the attack role then they risk getting Disadvantage on the attack if the attribute check fails. If they want to gain a +2 then they only risk a -2 on a failure.
    Another way might be to use a bonus action for a straight trade. Like I spend a bonus action for “acrobaticing” and get a -5 to the roll but I have advantage. Or something.

    Initiative. I love it every round. It shakes things up and makes initiative modifiers a bit more important.