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Rule-of-Three: 10/03/2011
Rich Baker

You've got questions—we've got answers! Here's how it works—each week, our Community Manager will be scouring all available sources to find whatever questions you're asking. We'll pick three of them for R&D's Rich Baker to answer, whether about the about the making of the game, the technical workings of our DDI studio, or anything else you care to know about… with some caveats.

There are certain business and legal questions we can't answer (for business and legal reasons). And if you have a specific rules question, we'd rather point you to Customer Service, where representatives are ready and waiting to help guide you through the rules of the game. That said, our goal is provide you with as much information we can—in this and other venues.


1 How closely does the upcoming Book of Vile Darkness product tie in to the SyFy movie? How much design and development was based on the 3E version? Any details/hints on what we can expect?

(Answer generously provided by Rob Schwalb, designer of the new BoVD) I wanted to create an accessory people would use in their games without wrecking them. Introducing nasty evil into D&D game play is potentially troublesome. On one hand, it can trigger interparty conflict, which can shatter the campaign or drive players from the table. On the other hand, you run the risk of becoming a little too cartoonish with excessive evil to the point where nothing is really disturbing or unsettling anymore. In the end, I threw a dart at the wall, and I think it will be up to you to determine whether I hit the target.

Rather than just catalogue all the horrible things puked out by my id, I thought about evil as an active force in a D&D world. If evil is something with an agenda, how does it go about achieving its ends? What does it want? What does it do to get it? That sort of stuff. I then used (with some help from Chris Perkins) voices from the major villains appearing in the game from a variety of settings. I tried to use every nasty individual I could think of to add commentary throughout the DM book. Since we expect the Book of Vile Darkness to exist in all settings, it wasn't a stretch to include nods to the upcoming flick. I pulled an organization, characters, a paragon path, a few powers, and other odds and ends from the movie, and the adventure content at the end continues the movie's story to cover what happens next. Of course, all the connections to the movie are optional. The content works whether you're running a game in the Realms or the lands of Red Steel (that was for you, Mike).

As for the 3rd edition Book of Vile Darkness, what can I say? I'm a fan. I talk about this book in an upcoming "Design & Development" article, so rather than spoil the surprise, I can tell you that while I drew a lot of inspiration from Monte Cook's work, I also had firm limits on how far down that particular rabbit hole I could go. You will find nods and references to Monte's excellent work throughout the book in the form of a few paragon paths such as the vermin lord, magic items, a sentient tumor, and a few unsettling feats.

I will share the monster that makes me most proud: the filth hag. She sculpts a "son" from her own leavings, mud, and whatever other nasty stuff she has on hand and uses the shuffling monstrosity for protection while she ruins the heroes' day. Oh, and then there are the curses. I like curses. There's a nice curse called Accumulated Years. Until you find a way to rid yourself of the curse, you get older and older and older until you become blind, slowed, and weakened. Forever. Yep. That's the sort of fun you get to look forward to in this book.

2 Do you have any R&D advice for how to educate other DMs and players about the full spectrum of skill rolls (basically no skill roll needed/all roleplay, all the way to roll a skill roll for everything) and figuring out which style to use for a game?

(Back to Rich) I would never advise skill checks for everything; many events should just be routine. As a player, nothing annoys me more than being asked to make a Perception check to see something the DM is about to tell me anyway (especially when I "waste" a 20 on it!) Skill checks are most interesting when they're moderately difficult and there are real consequences for success or failure. Checks without consequences are a waste of time. Checks that are almost certain to succeed (or fail) simply expose the randomness of the d20. Stick to things that matter and things that offer a fair test to the PCs.

We've had some interesting discussions around the office lately on a principle we refer to as "Rule 0.5." Basically, Rule 0.5 is the idea that if a player takes the time and trouble to engage in the world and the situation by describing exactly what his character does, and that action is exactly appropriate, then that action should just succeed—period. For example, say that the DM knows that a secret door is hidden behind a bookcase. If a PC is searching a room for secret doors and the player says something like, "I want to check the floor around the bookcase, see if there are any scratches or slide marks there," Rule 0.5 would simply award the player an auto-success. If a character is trying to persuade a vainglorious NPC prince to send his army to Thunder Gap to stop the orcs, and the player speaking in character makes a very persuasive case that battle offers the prince a chance to win fame and renown, there's no need to let a crummy Diplomacy check ruin that player's effort; the player found the NPC's weak spot and said the exact right thing to spur him into motion. If a hero says he's watching the ceiling for monsters that might drop down on the party, Rule 0.5 says that the character automatically sees the darkmantles hiding up there. He was just doing the right thing at the right time.

Now, Rule 0.5 has its weak points. Used poorly, it can slow games down as players waste time trying to guess the exact right part of the room to search or monkey with every possible setting of levers in the gnomish steam engine. In that case, it's reasonable to ask the players to tell you the one thing they're especially searching or trying. If the answer is "the whole room," then a straight-up check is OK—nothing is getting special attention if everything is. But keep in mind that the whole point of Rule 0.5 is to reward players for immersion, creativity, and using their real-life wits when they play.

Finally, there is an excellent discussion on creating and using skill challenges (and, by extension, skill checks in general) in Dungeon Master's Guide 2. If you haven't checked out that material, it is well worth a read.

3 What are the most important aspects of designing a new campaign setting? Any news on upcoming campaign settings from wizards?

As I noted last week, I can't really say much about products that we haven't announced yet. So, I'm afraid I have no news to share about upcoming campaign settings.

Regarding the question of the most important aspects of designing a new campaign setting … wow, that's a big question. Designing a new setting is one of the most complex and involved jobs we take on. About the only thing that's a bigger effort is creating a new game edition. There are a thousand moving pieces involved: What kind of heroes exist in this world? What are the primary threats? Where are the adventures? What is the world's unique hook, its unique premise? What are the world's key visuals, its look? What is the right voice and presentation? What's the biggest, most important story? How do we tell that story without changing the world forever and making all the work we just did obsolete? Heck, what's the business plan? How many books do we have available to explore the world?

Coming from the RPG point of view, I guess I would say that the most important thing to get started is to begin with your simple, irreducible statement of what's unique about the world: this is swords-and-sandals fantasy in a dying world; this is epic fantasy in a world torn by a war of dragons; this is fantasy in a world where you are the king. Sometimes the best hooks come from combining two unrelated ideas. Then, with your broad theme in mind, answer these three questions: Who are the heroes, what are they fighting, and where or how are they adventuring? If you combine a good theme with interesting answers on the heroes and their enemies, you're well on the way to creating an engaging world. Or so I think, anyway.

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