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Howling Tower: Question #1

Left of a pair of six-section folding screens (byōbu) painted in Chinese Southern School style. This screen depicts the Zuiweng Arbor at Mount Langya in which literati hold a gathering.Worldbuilding is about telling stories. Storytelling and worldbuilding flow from the same spring. When no one knew what lay on the far side of the hills or across the wide river, any story about those places was set in an imaginary land that could be as fanciful as the storyteller cared to make it. (“Snakes there have two heads, fish speak in riddles, and the people walk on their hands! I have seen these things, and I tell you they are true!”)

When beginning to sketch out a new world, the first question I ask is not about cultures, races, geography, politics, science, or gods. All of those come later. Question #1 is, “What happens here?”

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Howling Tower: Taking Players Outside Their Comfort Zones

Arthur Rackham, “Exquisite Fairy Dancing”
Balance has always been a big concern among RPG players and designers. My friends and I had our first debate about whether D&D’s classes, races, spells, monsters, and magic items were “balanced” during our very first D&D session. We reached no definite conclusion other than that balance is a fleeting target.

D&D is not a competitive game. Players are not trying to force the DM into checkmate or each other into bankruptcy. The whole situation is fluid. If characters are winning too easily, the DM can ramp up the opposition; if they’re losing unexpectedly, the DM can toss them a lifering from the S.S. Deus ex Machina.

In this regard, playing most RPGs is less like playing a game and more like playing music. Sometimes the trumpets are loud, sometimes they’re overpowered by the violins or even the flutes. No one’s purpose in the band is simply to be the loudest. Whether the musicians are the Boston Philharmonic or Phish, their purpose is to give a musical performance that is pleasing to the ear. There’s a reason why the word concert means both “a musical performance” and “working closely together.”

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Howling Tower: Power Fluctuations

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Artist: Gustave Doré)
In roleplaying games, sometimes the characters who make up the adventuring party aren’t all at the same power level. In the olden days, that could be because a few characters died and had to start over at 1st level while the survivors were at 4th or higher, because one unlucky soul bore the brunt of the wight’s level draining, or because someone rolled a string of 18s during character creation. In newer editions, it tends to happen because a few players are experts at cramming every possible bit of destructive power into a character while others take a more casual approach, prefer to invest their points in something other than combat prowess, or simply don’t pay much attention to swords and arrows and other nasty things.

No matter what the cause, the result from the GM’s point of view is a group of characters that’s hard to challenge. While Grimjaw and Skullbuster are chopping monsters into coleslaw, Sunflower and Gigglebear are being pulled inside out and dropkicked back to the Bush administration.

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Howling Tower: Rise of the Miniature

Philip J. Viverito's "Siege of Alesia" game at Cold Wars 2010 (Photo: Steve Winter)
It’s a piece of RPG legend that D&D arose from wargaming. Although that’s true, it’s a case of something not really meaning what people think it means. A more accurate statement would be that D&D arose not from wargames but from wargamers. After all, the magical spark at the core of D&D is that it wasn’t just another wargame; it was a little of this and a little of that rearranged into something startlingly new and different.

But the inventors and early adopters of D&D were steeped in wargaming ideas, and they left a strong imprint on the game. Typically, this influence gets simplified to the most recognizable of the wargamers’ tools—miniatures—yet miniature figures are probably the least of the ways in which wargaming influenced RPGs. Early editions of D&D stated clearly that the game didn’t need miniatures at all. That was an important declaration, because rules for miniature wargames are what TSR published in the early 1970s. Anyone who bought a rulebook from TSR expected it to be for and about miniatures; hence the need to be up front about what people were buying.

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Howling Tower: Mounts

19th-century depiction of a victorious Saladin, by Gustave DoréWhen is the last time one of your characters bothered to own a horse in a D&D game? How long has it been since anyone soared over the mountains on the back of a roc or traversed the underworld on a lizard or giant worm? Has anyone ever even seen a chariot?

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