"What's that smell?" Peter asked from the other side of the cubicle. "It's like . . ." he sniffed loudly "Thai food."
There was no response and there was certainly no Thai food. At least not on my new desk in R&D.
Peter popped his head over the wall "It's coming from you!" he shouted. "Why are you down here eating lemongrass chicken at 9:30 in the morning?" he asked.
"It's Ginger Soufflé," I told him. "It's my moisturizer."
"Do you always smell like that?" Stephen Radney-MacFarland asked. "Because if so, please limit your visits down here until after 12:00. You're making me hungry."
Limit my visits? Stephen must not have checked his email yet. Or maybe Bill wanted to make a special announcement. I'm glad I dressed up today and wore the expensive moisturizer.
"Yes," I said, "I probably will smell like this on most days. It's my favorite scent. But I'm not exactly visiting, you know. I work here."
"What's this?" Stephen asked, poking at the tinfoil dome I left on my would-be desk.
"Chocolate bunt cake" I said. "Kind of a desk-warming treat, I guess." I didn't mention that it's them who should be warming my desk and not me. No reason to start off on the wrong foot here.
My first morning as the newly appointed Player-in-Chief was not nearly as productive as I had hoped. Mostly because my former boss kept calling me back to my old desk and making me attend meetings and answer the emails of my old self. I cut her some slack, knowing this change happened rather quickly. I agreed to help her out but only for a couple of days.
"Help me out?" she asked.
"I know. Gracious, isn't it?" I confirmed. "I wish I could do more but The People have been without a voice for too long. Got to go!"
"Hey!" she shouted after me. "Where are you going with my plants?"
And with that I headed back to R&D, determined not to let my first day be a total wash. Change was in the air! And it smelled like Ginger Soufflé.
My new team in R&D spends a lot of time talking to each other. I guess this is part of their jobs. They volley random stats back and forth, theorize, hypothesize, and reminisce. I find Peter and Chris Perkins sitting at the round table positioned for these kinds of conversations. I join them.
"Whose stuff is that on the empty desk?" Chris asked.
"Mine," I answered, slicing off two hunks of cake and sliding paper plates in each of their directions.
"She thinks she works here now," Peter said. "In R&D."
I sensed some intimidation coming from Peter, which was understandable. He's young. He'll learn. And if not, I'll take him out in kickboxing class.
"Speaking of working," I said. "Let's get started. I need to go over some proposed rules changes with you. On behalf of the players, of course."
"Of course," Chris said.
Collectively, Chris and Peter have been playing D&D longer than I've been alive -- 30 years and 15 years respectively.
"And how long have you been playing?" Peter asked me.
"Four years," I answered. "But I think that's an advantage. I have a fresh perspective. I'm almost a clean slate. The Player-in-Chief needs to represent everyone. Even the fresh-faced newbies."
"Good cake," Chris said. "You're hired."
That's stating the obvious,s but I thanked him anyway. "So why don't I tell you some of my development ideas?"
"Oh boy," Chris said.
"Can't wait," Peter said.
Apathy is a transparent mask for insecurity. I felt for them. I did.
"Let's start with die-ties," I said. "Just like in kickball, where the tie goes to the runner, in D&D, the tie should go to the player."
I cited the example that comes up almost every time we play where New DM asks if 17 hits Tabitha's Armor Class.
"Nope!" I will say. "It ties her armor class. Phew! Dodged that bullet!"
He then goes on to tell me that I'm taking 12 points of damage, which I grudgingly deduct on my character sheet. If Tabitha ends up dying, I will contest it.
"The number on your character sheet is the number needed to hit you," Peter said.
Well, duh, Peter. Even I know that.
"So it doesn't tie," Chris elaborated. "It hits."
"Well, it shouldn't hit. 18 and above should hit Tabitha. 17 should miss."
"That would make your Armor Class 18," Peter said.
"Right," I said. Jeez, as smart as these guys are supposed to be, they seemed to have a hard time grasping simple math concepts. "That's what I'm saying."
"So if your Armor Class was 18, then 18 would hit you," Chris said.
"18 would be a tie!" I said. They must be so intimidated they couldn't think straight. "19 would hit."
"No," Peter said. "Next question."
I had a lot of changes to make before lunch, so I moved on. I'd come back to this later.
"Everyone should have the chance to reroll. Especially when you miss on your daily."
"Some races have that ability," Peter said.
"It's what makes them special," Chris said, reminding me that he used to be a teacher.
"Well bully for the special races," I said. "Maybe some benefits are better than others and therefore not fair at all. Ever think of that?" No, I bet they hadn't.
"If the ability to reroll is so important to you, then play an elf," Peter suggested.
"Astrid was an elf, and she couldn't do that," I said. "Do you have any idea how many times she let her party down by rolling a 1?"
"Who's Astrid?" Peter asked.
"She works in HR," Chris said, laughing.
Oh no he didn't! "No, she doesn't!" I corrected. "She is a retired adventurer but one of the finest in her time."
"Rolling all those 1s?" Peter asked. "Doesn't sound like it."
If only I had a magic missile in my pocket . . .
"Look, if you're so concerned about stepping on the toes of elves, why not just give them a different unique ability, like good memory or well groomed, and give the ability to re-roll to the rest of us?"
Peter made a buzzing sound as if I picked the wrong door on The Price is Right.
"Or how about our elven friends can use their special ability on another party member?"
Peter and Chris look at each other with raised eyebrows. "That's not terrible," Chris said. "I mean, comparably."
Peter nodded in agreement. "It could be a racial feat for elves."
"Great," I said. "You can post an update on the website, say, tomorrow?"
"Maybe not that soon," Chris said. "We should probably do a little more research first."
"Fine. Let's move on to the Soap Opera Effect."
"Do we have to?" Peter asked.
I sliced off another hunk of cake and slid it toward Peter.
I always thought there were remarkable similarities between game developers and soap opera writers. Both rely on villains and heroes, lush backgrounds and backstories, and several characters coming together to tell one story.
"You should employ more soap opera tactics in regular game play, such as if you have a particularly bad encounter where, say, your character dies, you can use the new encounter power I just had the strangest dream and—"
"Pretend it never happened," Peter interrupted. He must have already been working on this.
"Exactly! You'll be good as new."
"Everyone in the party has to pretend it was a dream?" Chris asked.
"If they want to, I guess."
"So we are to assume that while your friends were fighting for their lives, you were conked out in a corner snoozing?" Peter asked.
"And what about experience points?" Chris wanted to know. "You didn't fight, but they have to share them with you?"
"No, I mean, maybe —"
"Freeloader!" Peter accused. "You just want to kick back and reap the benefits of everyone else's hard work?"
"You're like a professor with tenure," said Chris.
"I'm not a freeloader! My character has never slept through an encounter! It was just a … suggestion."
But even without their unfounded accusations, I can see why it's not a very good one. It's like when a contestant wins immunity on Top Chef. All of their teammates know they're either going to slack off in the elimination challenge or go totally off the rails and take the opportunity to try out an eel curry custard.
"How about power naps?" I asked. "Everyone knows you only need 20 minutes to feel fully recharged."
"Then you'd have one encounter after encounter," Chris explained.
Of course, Peter agreed. "Yeah, when would you have time to prepare a magic item, or eat dinner, or flirt with a barmaid at the tavern?"
I'm not much for flirting with waitresse,s but maybe they have a point. Or maybe I'm just exhausted from being verbally tag-teamed by these two rules snobs. "I can see you do put some thought into the rules."
"How kind of you to notice," Peter said.
"Oh darn," Chris said, getting up from the table. "It's time for my root canal. Got to go!"
"I'll set up a meeting for tomorrow," I told him. "We still have to talk about the hairstyle generator for the Character Builder."
"Thanks for the cake," Peter said. "See you in kickboxing."
There's no shortage of rules-makers within my sight. And to think they sit at their desks like everyone else, diet sodas to their left, mouse pads emblazoned with pictures of their kids on the right. I have often wondered what Mike Mearls is staring at on his computer screen, because every time I walk by, he appears to be smiling. It's not until three minutes into our conversation that I begin to suspect, he's just a nice guy who smiles a lot. But that can't be! Mike Mearls is responsible for some major oversights, and he will not get away with it!
"As you know, I'm the newly elected Player-in-Chief," I began. "I have some issues to bring to your attention.
"Sounds great!" he said -- much more enthusiastically than Peter and Chris, I might add.
"How about putting more emphasis on shopping. You have no idea what kind of skill goes into being a good consumer. Especially if you're trying to outfit a new adventurer on a paltry starting salary."
"Interesting," Mike said. "So what kinds of skills and mechanics should be associated with being a good shopper?"
"Just like real life: Diplomacy, Perception, Will, Fortitude . . . . Do you know how many perfectly good items I say no to on a daily basis? That is not easy."
"I imagine," Mike said.
"And accessorizing," I continued. "Who knows how long your encounter is going to take. You can't trudge through a dungeon with a garment bag over your shoulder. But just a few key accessories could convert your daytime adventuring gear to evening wear."
"I had no idea," Mike said. "How would you incentivize the players to pay more attention to their accessories?"
"Well, looking good would probably boost their Charisma."
"And maybe if they weren't so quick just to rush into the first store and pick up the first adventurer's kit they see, they might find a much better deal a few stores down."
"Men aren't very patient when it comes to shopping," he agreed. "How would you encourage them to slow down and check out all the options?"
"Gift with purchase!" I said. "I won't buy my eye cream unless I'm getting a free lipstick with it."
"Or what if they knew they were getting judged on their wardrobe like on Project Runway?" Mike said.
"Yes!" I shouted. Mike totally got it. "Wait. Project Runway?"
"My wife . . ." he answered.
I could dish on Project Runway for hours, but I still have that bone to pick.
"I have a serious question for you," I warned. "How come Astrid isn't on the cover of Player's Handbook 2? Is there a more famous sorceress?"
"Astrid?" he asked.
"She's the new girl in HR," Peter said, as he walked by with a menu for take-out Thai.
"No she's not. She's my sorceress."
"Oh, right. Astrid. Um . . . that's a good question," he said thoughtfully. "Actually, James picked the artwork. Take it up with him." He pointed to James Wyatt, who happened to be walking by.
"I did no such thing," James said. "Blame Rob." That was totally unfair, because Rob wasn't even at his desk to defend himself.
No one was fessing up. We stared at each other like someone had cast a Silence ritual.
Finally Mike spoke. "Clearly it was an oversight. We're very sorry."
"I'm sure you incorporated elements of her when designing the new sorcerers, right?" I asked.
Mike nodded. "Yes! We made Charisma very, very important, which is, of course, a testament to Astrid's personality."
I was so proud I might have burst. Does it help or hurt your credibility if you burst out crying at a co-workers desk? I left before we found out.
Stephen Radney-MacFarland has given himself the title of "the nicest guy in R&D," which is a pretty bold statement, considering his cohorts. I had yet to see any evidence to back it up. I mean, my desk wasn't cleaned off, and he hadn't even welcomed me to the team. In fact, he asked me six times what I was doing loitering by his desk.
If he really was the nicest guy in R&D, then certainly he'd be amenable to changing up some of the rules. For The People, of course.
"You know how Snuffleupagus always called Big Bird 'Bird' because he didn't think Big Bird was so big?" I asked.
No? Wow. I figured that out when I was 7.
"Well, magic missile used to be Astrid's favorite spell, because she could basically stand behind a column filing her nails, throw a couple of missiles over her shoulder, and clean house."
"Gah! What's wrong with you guys? Whatever. What's up with having to roll to see if magic missile hits?"
"You're mad we took the nail filing ability out of magic missile?"
"I'm mad that you're still calling it 'magic' when clearly it's not. It should be called missile."
"So we should find and eliminate the word 'magic' whenever referencing magic missile? That seems like an awful lot of work."
"If it's easier, put an asterisk next to it and write a footnote that states, 'this spell is no longer magical'."
"Great. I'll bring that up at the next errata meeting," he said. Then under his breath, he muttered something that sounded an awful lot like, and then we'll make fun of you.
"Here's a big one," I continued. "Say every morning I prepare three meals for the day. I have oatmeal, a veggie burger, and a can of black beans."
"It's delicious. So I eat my oatmeal in the morning, and in the afternoon I get hungry again. Shouldn't I be able to eat my veggie burger? And then later, I should eat my beans."
"You seem to spend an awful lot of time converting your thoughts into analogies."
"What I mean is, if I know three daily spells, why can't I cast them all once a day?"
"Sounds like the real problem is that you're a bad eater."
"I'm a great eater. Tabitha is smart enough to know three daily spells. She should be able to use them."
"What level are you?" he asked.
"Get smarter," he said. "You can cast two a day at level 5."
This was news to me, as every time I brought this issue up with New DM, he said something like, "Tough noogies."
"Why I didn't know this?"
"Because you're a bad eater."
Fortunately, I've stalked James Wyatt before, so I know he likes a pick-me-up around 11:00 A.M. And guess what? So do I!
Regardless of what Stephen may think, James is widely known as the nicest guy anywhere, and I'm pretty sure that includes R&D. That doesn't make me any less nervous about talking to him about my issues with Dungeon Masters. He's also allergic to wheat, so I can't sway him with brownies or bunt cake. We'd have to do this the old-fashioned way.
"Look, James, I love iPhones as much as the next person, but they have the potential to ruin a game. I'd like to incorporate a rule that anytime a player is caught texting, talking, surfing, or updating Facebook via iPhone, the DM has the option to drop a chandelier on their head as an interrupt action."
"Sure. How about if a player starts his or her turn on the Web, the DM can punish him?"
Check it out! I was already getting results for The People. "So we can expect this to appear in DMG 2?"
"Probably not," James said. "If the DM needs a rule like this, he or she should feel free to add it, but we won't make it official."
Not official? This goes against my rules-abiding sensibilities. Is James really saying DMs have the freedom to make up rules?
"How will they know they can add it as a rule if you don't make a rule that says adding it as a rule is now a rule?"
"The rules are meant to be guidelines," he said, taking a sip of hazelnut latte. "It's not against the law to tailor them."
Guidelines? Tailoring? All that work that went into writing the rules and James doesn't care if people follow them? This confirms what I've always suspected.
"New DM is lying to us," I said. "I also want to add a rule that allows players to call their DM's bluff."
"Not lying," James said. "Tailoring."
Now I know how Jack Bauer must feel when he finds out someone on the inside is really working with the terrorists.
James elaborated on his point. "D&D is supposed to be a shared experience between players and the DM. We can't possibly make all the rules fun for everyone all the time. So we give DMs the ability to customize their own campaigns so that each group can have fun. It's called 'Rule Zero'."
"Aren't you having fun?" he asked.
"Of course," I said. "At least I am when New DM isn't using his classified, made-up R&D secrets as weapons of mass destruction."
"Then he must be doing something right."
I shook my fist in the air, presumably in the direction of DMs everywhere. Curses! I had failed The People! When James found out how careless people were with his hard-crafted rules, he was supposed to be my ally. Yet all this time, he was hoping that the rules are malleable enough to allow people to have fun? What kind of madness was this?
I was so exhausted and confused after my conversation with James that I accidentally returned to my old desk in Brand.
"She's back," Marty announced. "Scott, you owe me 10 dollars."
"Thanks for nothing," Scott said. "I thought you'd last until lunch at least."
I couldn't help being disappointed. I spent a lot of time coming up with my list of changes, but it looked as though R&D spends considerable amounts of time coming up with theirs.
"Imagine that," Scott said when I told him of my findings. "They're not just all good looks and charm."
"Yeah," Marty added, "they're down there trying to make the game fun. Meanwhile, you're trying to turn it into recess at a maximum security prison."
Maybe they were right. There's a combined 184 years of D&D experience just from the R&D team members I talked to. That's actual game play. It pains me to say this, but maybe The People don't need a lobbyist or liaison. Maybe R&D is The People. Perhaps my R&D skills were better suited to finding some healthy, wheat-free dessert options.
"Well, I'm glad you're back," Marty said. "It didn't smell the same without you here."
"Anyone feel like getting Thai food for lunch?" I asked. "I'm suddenly craving it."
About the Author
While she no longer works in R&D, Shelly Mazzanoble still enjoys making up rules and having R&D tell her why they won't work. She does not, however, smell like lemongrass chicken, and never has.