Friday, June 20, 2014

The Difference Engine

GM #1: "In my world, the Orcs are different. The Orcs of today are the descendants of an ancient, once great, world spanning empire. Through decadence and mismanagement, their nation fell, and was picked apart by the young races and countries of the world. They look like the Warhammer Orcs. Big, muscular, and green."

GM #2: "Cool. My Orcs are pink, warty, and combine the features of Humans and pigs. They're the result of a failed wizard experiment. They're really different because, as a result of their magic origins, they won't attack wizards unless the wizard attacks them first."

GM #3: "Hmmm. Interesting. My world is very different. I don't even have Orcs."

GMs #1 & #2: "Whaaa...?"

GM #3: "Yeah. I have a race I made up called the Ughspawn. They are the offspring of the dark god Ughloch, who exists only to eat, fight, and make Ughspawn. The Ughspawn kind of look like the Orcs from the Lord of the Rings movies, but they're greyish-white."

GMs #1 & #2: "Neat!"

Me: " are they different in game?"

GMs #1, #2 & #3: "Huh?"

Me: "Yeah. What makes them feel different to me, as a player, while I am playing? Can I see the stats of your Orcs and Ughspawn?"

GMs #1, #2 & #3: "Sure!"

Me: "^#*@ you all."


What Other GMs Do Wrong: Making Things Different

Newsflash for 99.9% of the Fantasy RPG GMs out there:

Brace yourselves...


Neither are your Dragons, your Giants, or any of the other creatures you created fluff about. When I, and other players, encounter these things in the context of your game, they are exactly what they've always been, and with rare exceptions, they look the way they look in my head.

Hell, the vast majority of creatures in the early editions had little to no fluff, so just adding fluff is not special. Adding fluff is what you do. It's called running a damn RPG.

It doesn't take a lot to make your world and it's occupants actually feel different from what is usually encountered. Very often however, we're all so full of our own 'incredible creativity' and 'writing talent' that we totally gloss over making these things do anything actually unique, or at even unusual, in the context of the game.

I can tell you a great story, and then punch you in the face.

I can also just punch you in the face.

In the end, did the story matter?
So here's the deal...
Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing Make Things Different!
Three completely different worlds!

Can't you tell?


Now, I am not saying no one out there is capable of doing something interesting with their universe and characters. As a matter of fact, I think there are tons of GMs who are excellent at creating really unique, exciting and sometimes bizarre milieus for their players to explore.

It's the GMs who are doing plain, old, vanilla settings and imagining that because their gnolls speak with a German accent, or their goblins are puce, that they've penned the next Game of Thrones. Those are the GMs and games I'm addressing.
You haven't. Sit up, shut up and take some notes.
It's fine if your world, or at least the part of it I am going to see for the first dozen levels of our campaign, is pretty much a classic medieval, vaguely Western European village or fiefdom near woods. It's always near woods.
That's OK. It's cool, really. Just, tell me that ahead of time. Don't get me all hopeful and wound up by telling me how awesome and unusual your world is and than it's the aforementioned keep in almost-England. Near woods. Again.

Be honest. There is no shame in admitting you like traditional Fantasy.

Muwahahaha! Sorry, hard to say that with a straight face. Kidding, kidding. Ahem.

Here's one surefire way you can make your generic, vaguely French-English-German land of wizards and warriors memorable when compared to the other thousand people with vaguely French-English-German lands of wizards and warriors.


#1. Don't Just Tell Me It's Different. Show Me! Make It Part of My Character.
Make your fluff match your mechanics and vice versa. If your story says something works a certain way, the rules should reflect that, or it's meaningless.

This is the number one, biggest pet peeve I have as I player. OK, number two. Wait...*does some math*...fifth. This is my fifth biggest pet peeve as a player.

Going to tell you a little story as an example of what I am talking about and how to fix it...

A friend of mine said (paraphrasing), "My dragons are different, and one of the really cool, really different things about them is their language."

She then went on to describe the language of the dragons, how it worked and why. It was a very interesting story, and very well thought out. I liked it a lot actually. It had some similarities to the language of my own dragons.

In the end, one key thing she said stayed with me, because I view my own world's Draconic tongue the say way. She said their language was extremely difficult to learn and speak, because most other creatures aren't physically built the way dragons are and the language itself is complex.


My first question when she was all done was, "Can PCs learn Draconic?"

She said they could. I said, "OK. How does one do that?"

She was perplexed for a moment. She asked what I meant, and I replied that I wanted to know what a character would have to do to learn the Draconic language. Her answer was, you may choose Draconic as one of the languages your PC gains from a high Intelligence score. So, just like you can choose Goblin or Giant, you can choose Dragon (or Draconic).

Does anyone else see the problem? How is this language any more difficult or complex than any other? If I am a Human/Fighter, 1st level, and I have an Intelligence of 12, that means I can speak one additional language. I pick Draconic. Why not?

Here's how it works in D&D-But-Not:

First, you need to spend three Language Slots (a Slot is what we call a Language gained per Intelligence Bonus) in order to speak Dragon. Three.

If your class is Wizard, or you are playing an Elf, or a Dwarf, it takes two.
If you are an Elven or Dwarven Wizard, you need only spend one.

The language is difficult, physically and mentally. You need a long time to learn it and practice it in order to do it properly. Therefore, it takes up Intelligence bonus points that might have gone elsewhere, to the learning of other languages. Dwarves and Elves have an advantage because they are much longer lived. They have the time to learn something this complicated. Furthermore, Wizards would be one of the few professions with access to books and information on the subject.

Dragons don't exactly go around giving tutorials on their grammar.

Lastly, if you are a normal Human or Wilder (the Halflings of my setting), you must also provide a backstory of how you learned this language. As I noted, there is no Rosetta Stone: Draconic program going around teaching Dragon-Speak to blacksmiths and midwives in their spare time.

The beauty of my little house rule, and it's pretty minor I assure you, is that it directly effects your character.

It does not effect them in a major way, and it doesn't effect a character who doesn't choose to learn Draconic, but it makes an element of my fluff a choice you can make during character creation.

If Orcs are pig-like instead of green and burly, how does it effect me?
If we called Wizards in this setting Spell-Tamers, how does it effect me?
If there are not Clerics in your setting, how...Wait. That matters! I, the player in your setting, care about that!


Fluff is great. I love fluff? Where would a fluffer-nutter sandwich be without the fluff? OK, it would be an all peanut butter sandwich, which honestly I'm fine with, but, NOT THE POINT!

We need fluff. Yet, how can I put this delicately, um, it doesn't really make that game all that different and memorable. If the fluff has no effect on the characters and the game world in a interactive, experienceable way, the game, regardless of your unique story, will feel like any other game in that genre and/or system.

Remember, cotton candy is tasty, but not filling.

Barking Alien


  1. It can be Eberron run on AD&D, Cyberpunk 2020 run on Risus, or B2 run out of the box. Campaigns are as unique as the group that plays them, no more. & certainly no less.

  2. Yes!

    If you've never experienced what I'm talking about, this post above probably won't make much sense. I on the hand, have been through it many, many times.

    A GM wants you to join their game. They go on, and on, about how awesome it is, telling you all its cool fluff and features, and how so unlike other games of the same genre it is.

    Sounds good. You play.

    Generic medieval woodland kingdom Model-1. Railroad adventure Model-1B (Model-1 is standard, A has more monsters, B has more traps and terrain dangers). Rinse. Repeat.


  3. My take on it is that if you [speaking to the "generic you", i.e. the wacky GMs three in this example] have to have orcs, you have to describe them some way and you might as well choose the way you think is coolest, as long as it fits the mood as a whole (or weirdness as a whole, if it's q-factor you're going for). Like, you think Spell-Tamer is a cooler name than Wizard? Then go for it! Or you want to call it "Magic-User" for a retro vibe even though you're playing 2e or later.
    If you think "Orcs" should be reskinned as "Ughspawn", then go ahead! The names "orc" and "wizard" aren't necessarily sacred.

    If what you're [now switching back to the specific you, i.e. Barking Alien] saying is: "Sure, go for it, just don't think you're special", I'm onboard.
    If what you're saying is: "Don't do it unless you also introduce mechanical change," I'm not.

    Small tidbits of fluff here and there are cool. No need to go to boxed text city.

    1. I think we're on the same page 2097. Sorta kinda.

      What I am saying is that fluff is great. Fluff is awesome. However, if you are telling me you've reinvented the wheel, and all I get is the same old wheel, renamed 'The Wheel-EXTREEME', with a fancy back story, I am going to be disappointed. It's neat I guess, but you didn't really reinvent the wheel so much as find a cool way to try and sell me the same wheel I've seen a hundred times before.

      Moreover, people do this. They do this, again and again. I've been in numerous D&D games, and listened to the descriptions and accounts of dozens more, and they were all touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread, and they were all so boringly similar.

      The reason I bring up the mechanical change as an easy, concrete way of making something you say is different actually feel different, is because it is a difference the PCs with actually experience in a direct fashion.

      If you say a language is difficult to learn, and it's the same rules for learning it as any other language, NEWSFLASH, it is not difficult to learn in game terms. You can say it's unusual or special until you're blue in the face, but unless it works differently from other similar elements, it is exactly the same as they are.

      Case in point, Magic. How many people describe magic as a dangerous force, an unpredictable or difficult to control force? I hear that fluff all the time. When it comes time to case a spell, nothing is changed from the core rule book. Guess what? That is neither difficult, nor unpredictable, nor dangerous in and of itself.

      Want people to think Magic and Spellcasting is a talent that's all kinds of crazy? Change the rules on how it works. Then the fluff will match how it's played.

      That's the bottom line on what I am suggesting. If you want something to feel different, and be thought of differently, it has to work in a manner atypical from what the player is used to. That will be more in line with your fluff, and more memorable to the players.

  4. Great series, very interesting. And it seems you have discovered what keeps the Internet running: anger! XD

  5. I thought this was a great post so I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week! series. I hope you don't mind!

    1. Thanks once again Charles!

      Man, staying on the Best Reads is a lot of pressure. Not sure I can handle the strain! ;)