D&D Player’s Strategy Guide: A More Thoughtful Look

Yesterday, I posted a reactionary piece called D&D Player’s Strategy Guide: How Much Will It Suck? which garnered some thoughtful comments. Often more thoughtful than the original article so I felt it appropriate to give the subject a second, more considered look.

Bad Title

The title of my article was unfair because I not basing my opinions on the book but on the book’s blub. The copywriting designed to make the book appealing to would-be buyers. Without the book itself, I and all of the commentators cannot make informed comments on the content. Despite some further digging I’ve not found any previews, table of contents or other information of what is going into the book.

So a fairer title to my article would of been:

D&D Player’s Strategy Guide:
How Much Does This Blurb Suck?

Because it is the blurb, and what it implies about the book content, that I find deeply annoying. But more of that later. First, an issue various commentators brought up.

Humourous, Entertaining, Tongue-in-Cheek

Based on the blurb “… includes entertaining sidebar essays written by celebrity gamers and a distinctive comic art style …” and the fact that the cover art is by Gabe of Penny Arcade fame, there was an assumption by some commentators that this book will be tongue-in-cheek or humourous in nature. Well, there is simply no evidence for this.

Apart from the mention of “entertaining” sidebar essays, there is no mention in the blurb that the book is meant to be anything else than a serious guide to D&D. Author James Wyatt is D&D Design Manager at Wizards and has no history of being involved in humorous or tongue-in-cheek writing before.

Oddly, none of the celebrity gamers writing the sidebars are identified. The point of using celebrities is that their names grab people’s attention which is why you often see “With introduction by …” on books. Yet no names are listed. This is just another indicator that the book is a serious supplement, meant to be no different from any of the other 4e books.

An Odd Choice of Artwork

I admit that I did not recognise the Penny Arcade style of artwork when I saw the cover. What I saw is what I suspect a lot of average gamers will see, artwork that does not compare well with the other 4e supplement books. Sitting next to the PHBs and DMGs, the cover for the D&D Player’s Strategy Guide does not look good.

The problem is that though they have gone for a different style of art, everything else about the book is standard. The position and font of the tile, the D&D logo, even the size and format of the book is the same as all the other books.

This is a mistake. Wizards clearly wanted to give this book a distinctive look but they were not radical enough. After spending the last 2 years building a well defined 4e look and feel, changing the art style does is just not enough. It is like adding drag-racing wheels to a family car. They look out of place and they don’t make the car go any faster.

The final word on this subject goes to the artist themselves.

I was really surprised that they asked me to do this. All the D&D book covers have such a strong and classic aesthetic. I was nervous about doing the cover because my style doesn’t really match up with the rest of the books, but they assured me they wanted this particular book to have a different/distinctive look.

Source: Dungeons and Dragons on Penny Arcade.

The Blurb Sucks

You may be thinking that I’m over-reacting to a hundred words used to sell one book and you would be right. However, the blurb is symptomatic of Wizards approach to selling in recent years.

For comparison, here is the full text to D&D Player’s Strategy Guide side-by-side to the nearest equivalent book from an earlier edition: Hero Builder’s Guidebook published in 2000 for 3rd Ed.

One hundred and sixty pages of Dungeons & Dragons® hotness.

The D&D® Player’s Strategy Guide is aimed at D&D players who crave the envy of their gamer peers. If you want a character that’s jaw-droppingly cool, this book is for you. It provides tips and tricks for optimizing your D&D characters—to make them more awesome and fun to play at the game table.

In addition to character optimization tips and player advice, this book includes entertaining sidebar essays written by celebrity gamers and a distinctive comic art style unlike other books in the D&D game line.

Give your character every advantage.

When you sit down to create a character, let your mind do the work — don’t just leave it to the dice. The Hero Builder’s Guidebook puts at your fingertops everything you need to know before your character’s first adventure. With this book, you will:

Maximize your character’s potential with step-by-step character advancement guides.

Create a compelling backstory for your character, including family, friends, and enemies.

Pick from more than 70 variants to the class descriptions in the Player’s Handbook.

Choose personality traits to bring your character to life at the gaming table.

Both players and Dungeon Masters benefit from the detailed character backgrounds in this book.

Whilst both clearly are being sold to power gamers (see below), the one on the right actually attempts to sell the book on making your character a better character. On other hand, the one on the left is about looking cool and being “awesome”.

I don’t know about other GMs but if I’m going to have a power gamer at the table, I want the player to be doing it because they believe it makes a better character, not because it makes them cool.

Power Gamers! What Are They Good For?

The D&D Player’s Strategy Guide is clearly aimed at want-to-be power gamers and this is what really annoys me. The hobby is called role-playing, not power-playing. Mechanics are part of the hobby and getting the best of out of the rules is part of the game but it is not the game itself.

The people who buy this book, based on this blurb, will be the sort of people who believe that buying the same type of golf clubs that Tiger Woods uses will make them better golfers. In both D&D and golf, it is not the type of club that matters, it is what you do with it.

One final thought …

If nothing else has convinced you, ask yourself this question.

How many times have wished there were more power gamers in your gaming group?

Sources:
1d12 questions with James Wyatt
James Wyatt on D&D Wikia
Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Strategy Guide: A 4th Edition D&D Supplement (Hardcover)
Hero Builder’s Guidebook (Dungeons & Dragons d20 3.0 Fantasy Roleplaying) (Paperback)
Is D&D 4E really like WoW …? from RPG.Net
Player’s Strategy Guide: Your opinion
A 4e book I want, but at the same time, want to never have existed from the LJ Roleplayers community


Image Credit – Thoughtful Conversation by Don Harder – CC-BY-NC-2.0

 

15 comments

  1. “How many times have wished there were more power gamers in your gaming group?”

    Fair enough. Never. However, I have often wished that a fellow player understood their character build better, and that they understood how to make what they have effective. Even as a GM I’ve found myself wishing a couple of players had a better grasp of what could make their characters more effective.

    Now, of course, I don’t really want that guy from the rifts game who kept telling me I was using the wrong pistol because there was one that did more damage. But I don’t inherently have a problem with wanting to make your character cooler or more awesome. I don’t really want a competition between players, but I can see the appeal of trying to craft a character that makes the table go “That’s fsking sweet!”.

    I think ultimately the blurb is geared more towards gamers in the broader sense of aiming, as opposed to pen and paper gamers. I don’t really know if I think that is good or bad or just sort of is. As to the book itself, I don’t really have an opinion yet and likely won’t form one until I can see the content of the book. I already don’t own a lot of the 4E stuff, not because I don’t like the game but because my gaming dollars are tight currently, so I only buy the things I feel I really want in book format.

  2. There’s a lot that I could quibble with here, especially given the amount of criticism you’re leveling on a book that’s not even out yet. But let’s take the core of the issue here:

    “The hobby is called role-playing, not power-playing. Mechanics are part of the hobby and getting the best of out of the rules is part of the game but it is not the game itself.”

    It’s also not called “dice-rolling” or “prop-using” or any number of other things that COULD be a part of role-playing, if the group wants it.

    My group has a decent amount of power gamers. Not all of them, but a significant number. Yet, we still role-play. Those same players have detailed backstories, distinctive character traits, NPCs in their past that I can use to build my story as a DM, etc. Just because they are optimized in combat doesn’t mean they’re any less role-players.

    Frankly, I could give two craps if you do or don’t buy a book that’s coming out that you’re clearly not in the target audience for, and I’m not even sure that I should waste my time saying that it’s not going to be a hardcore optimization (like the CharOp boards).

    When you start telling me what is somehow “allowed” in role-playing or not, and start telling people what kind of gamers they should be?

    “How many times have wished there were more power gamers in your gaming group?”

    If they’re anything like my awesome players, bring them on.
    .-= Dave T. Game´s last blog ..Friday Chat: Are You Watching the Interweb? =-.

  3. @Justaguy

    “I have often wished that a fellow player understood their character build better,”

    Absolutely.

    One of things that occurred to me when writing the article was that there is a continuous line between learning the rules of a game through expert play and on to power gaming. Players have a responsibility to learn the rules relating to their character in order to keep the game moving for everyone.

    Even having a power gamer in the group is not necessarily a bad thing. Because of the time they have spent studying the rules they are often a very useful resource to have. But this knowledge comes about through study and experimentation, rather than copying the formula for a powerful character out of book.

    And yes there is an appeal in having your table mates go “That’s fsking sweet!”. But if your build unbalances the party or its power without any attempt to explain it in turns of characterisation, that admiration will quickly turn sour.

  4. @Dave,

    “… the amount of criticism you’re leveling on a book that’s not even out yet…. “

    Actually no. You could aim this at yesterday’s post but this post clearly indicates it is about the blurb used to sell the book, not the book itself.

    “My group has a decent amount of power gamers. Not all of them, but a significant number. Yet, we still role-play. Those same players have detailed backstories, distinctive character traits, NPCs in their past that I can use to build my story as a DM, etc. Just because they are optimized in combat doesn’t mean they’re any less role-players.”

    I would call having a character with a detailed backstory, distinctive traits, a narrative and all the rest, damn fine role playing.

    Being a role player does not mean being bad at combat or that combat is not part of the game. Combat is central to the hobby just as it was to the fiction that inspired the hobby. Try to imagine Conan sucking in combat or Lord of the Rings without the battles.

    Power gaming – to me at least – is where the pursuit of power overrides the characterization. It is a player will never consider having even the slightest sub-optimal feat or power merely for the sake of a more developed character.

    “…it’s not going to be a hardcore optimization (like the CharOp boards).”

    As you pointed out, the book is not even out yet so your speculation about the books content has no more meaningful than mine.

    When you start telling me what is somehow “allowed” in role-playing or not, and start telling people what kind of gamers they should be?

    [I’m guessing a word or two got missed out here but I think the meaning is clear]

    It never cease to amaze me how people, myself included, take things personally when someone expresses a different opinion.

    Let me be clear.

    What I say, on this blog, make no difference to you or how you play your game. In fact I don’t care what you do around your gaming table. I don’t care whether it is awesome or cool or completely fucked up.

    What I do care about is the actions and publication of the market’s largest publishers.

    Wizards have a huge impact on the gaming culture, both good and bad. So when its actions, its publications appear to be detrimental to the hobby, itself or its brands, I’m going to say so.

    But feel free to ignore me.

    I do not write these pieces to be popular, I do it because it is what I think and believe about the subject.

  5. Seriously chris, why do you bother writing these. It’s clear and has been for over a year now that you have a seething hatred of 4e. Grow up man, get over it and move on. I have yet to see anything with the words 4e and D&D coming from your blog which was not edition war fodder. Call me a troll if you wish, but I just thought you should know that your time could be better spent writing about the game you love to play, not bitching about things that in the end you don’t give a shit about.
    .-= Mike(aka kaeosdad)´s last blog ..Gamer Challenge: Month 1 =-.

  6. @Mike,

    My seething hatred of 4e …

    “Overall I’ve been impressed by the mechanics. They are more streamline than 3.5 (or indeed any previous version) and flows more logically in most places.”

    From –> https://6d6rpg.com/rpg/it-is-not-the-dd-i-know-and-love/

    Just one of many articles or comments where I’m positive about about 4e. And explain why its not the game for me.

    What is odd, is why you’ve automatically assumed this article is about 4e.

    If they had written this blurb on a 3rd ed. book or a Gamma World book, or any other RPG, I would be just as vocal in my dislike of it. The blurb’s lowest common denominator appeal is bad for the hobby whichever game systems it is attached to.

    As to not caring? Do you really think I would put this time and effort in if I did not care about the hobby?

  7. “What I do care about is the actions and publication of the market’s largest publishers.

    Wizards have a huge impact on the gaming culture, both good and bad. So when its actions, its publications appear to be detrimental to the hobby, itself or its brands, I’m going to say so.”

    This. This is important for people to remember. WotC does have a huge impact on the hobby and their actions are having a influence shaping the next generation of gamers. I loved 4e when it started, I was very happy to make the move, but the game’s failings, both in design philosophy and actual design have pushed us to the point where we’ve given up completely on 4e. When the game went from Party Op to Char Op as its main focus, we left. The blurb on this book tells me (just a little more) that WotC has come to value those voices the most… and so we’re voting with our dollars and walking away.

    Keep preachin’ dude.
    .-= morrisonmp´s last blog ..“Wish I’d Thought of That” No. 1 =-.

  8. A strategy guide is nothing new, they’ve been around since chess and it’s less jarring than D&D For Dummies – nice book but the title is mixed message central. Wanting to play the game mechanically well and roleplaying aren’t mutually exclusive and if this book serves both ends well, that will be neat.

    My concern here is people will begin to play 4E in the same way because the guide builds an expectation of the ‘right’ way to play. Yes, some players need a clue (been there!) and for them and the player stuck in a rut, this book will be a breath of fresh air and has value as a pre-flight checklist.

    Yet it may also endorse groupthink and stifle exploration by players. If your character isn’t played in accordance with the guide, expect to defend your decisions to a rules lawyer or passionate advocate who will criticise you for playing your character differently and accuse you of spoiling their fun even if your character works well with the party!

    People really do get that worked up about official books on how to play. In fact this book isn’t even out yet and commenters are already casting protection from criticism 10′ radius on it. I’ll reserve judgement until I see it and probably buy it as I like 4e and Gabe’s artwork. I guess difference of opinion can be done without resorting to flaming after all.
    .-= satyre´s last blog ..the mouse cage =-.

  9. @morrisonmp

    Thanks for the support brother. It sometimes feels a little lonely on the pulpit.

    @satyre

    There is a place for guides to games, especially ones as complex as 4e. But you highlight a real risk with any official product – that it can stifle self-discovery and experimentation at both group and individual levels.

    Going from the comments on Penny Arcade (see the post for the link) Gabe might of only done the cover artwork. This will be a shame because having lots of different comic styles will dilute the ‘distinctive’ look WotC are aiming for. However, we won’t know until the book is released.

    Chris

  10. “Apart from the mention of “entertaining” sidebar essays, there is no mention in the blurb that the book is meant to be anything else than a serious guide to D&D. ”

    I think the blurb itself seems to imply the humor. Maybe I’m giving WotC too much credit, but I can’t imagine any publisher using the phrase “jaw-droppingly cool” without being sarcastic or satirical. It sounds like deliberate satire, very much tongue-in-cheek.

    Compare this to the blurb for “X-Treme Dungeon Mastery” a small press third party product that is unambiguously meant to be satirical…

    “XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery is a hard-bound, 160-page illustrated tome whose toothy, monochromatic pages will add more color to your game than any other supplement you might buy. Its principles work with every role-playing system known to man, and it includes the fully-playable XD20 system which allows the true Extreme Dungeon Master to render any of those other systems obsolete… or at least completely superfluous.”

    The WotC blurb seems to be written with the same tone. Combined with the change in cover-art… this blurb really seems like it’s intentionally satirical.

  11. @Hube

    Love the XDM quote.

    Maybe my satirical radar has failed me, it would not be the first time. However in my defense, I have to point out that Wizards hasn’t got a huge track record of satire with the D&D brand.

    If the whole book turned out to be completely, and most importantly, deliberately over-the-top, I would be more than delighted. For a company to send up itself up so completely would be a joy to behold.

    I for one, would love to see WotC return to the wacky and boundary pushing approach of some of the early TSR modules.

  12. I’m also hoping that it will be tongue-in-cheek – the involvement of Wil Wheaton and the PA crew implies that it will be, but you never know. I need a min/max guide like a kick in the head, but the side notes might be worthwhile.

    I’ve also got to say, Chris, as a critic of the previous post on this one, I’m glad you took the time to re-assess your previous post. I still don’t agree with you, but that’s beside the point.

    Regarding the Heroes Builder Guidebook – did you ever actually try and make a 3e character? I mean, a guidebook AT LEAST. Possibly a university-level course called 3.x 101 – How not to Gimp Yourself…

    Even if this is a min/maxing book, there certainly seems to be a market for the things, judging by the Character Optimization boards. I’m not sure where we’ve gotten the idea that WotC is supposed to be the Sacred Protector of the Right Way to Play D&D, as opposed to say, a company that needs to sell stuff to stay in business, but it’s pervasively wrongheaded. Criticizing a company that makes sales for producing something that appeals to what I bet is a significant portion of their buying public seems silly.

    Bewail it if you want – it’s your blog, so you’re allowed, but ultimately, you have the same choice here as you have with any other RPG product – to not buy it. You can’t fault WotC for making something that they think has a market, though. You don’t create products that you think your customers should want. You make things that they do want – if you want to stay in business, anyways.
    .-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..4e Sandboxing =-.

  13. @wickedmurph

    Thanks for your feedback. After the original post it was the comments of you and others that made we want to give this subject more thought.

    Criticizing a company that makes sales for producing something that appeals to what I bet is a significant portion of their buying public seems silly.

    I take it you would have no problem if WotC released the “Player’s Guide to Sex in D&D” featuring lots of hardcore pictures of paladins being tempted by succubi?

    A significant portion of their buying public would happily buy it but I doubt many people would think its a good for the D&D or the RPG hobby overall.

    The products and marketing of a dominant publisher like WotC are valid subjects for criticism because they set the tone for rest of the industry.

    In this case, the marketing blurb used to promote this book is juvenile and panders to the lowest common denominator. In itself it is nothing but it raises questions about the direction that WotC are going.

    For those of use who wish to see RPGs taken seriously as a hobby, one built on good writing and capable of dealing with something more that simplistic hack&slash adventuring, the approach and quality of everything large companies like WotC do is important.

    Many thanks for taking the time to read the blog and particularly to comment. It is very much appreciated.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..D&D Player’s Strategy Guide: A More Thoughtful Look =-.

  14. Hmmm, “Player’s Guide to Sex”, you say…

    I’m not sure they could be more risque than a lot of your standard Fantasy Art (I saw some Red Sonja stuff the other day that would fit right in such a book). But I take your point.

    The real difficulty here, I feel, is identifying if Wizards is driving the market with certain types of product, or responding to the needs of the market. Ultimately, is the teenage monty haul min/maxer a less valid customer of WotC than you or me? From my perspective, I have to say that they are, because although I do have a DDi subscription, I don’t buy any other books. Money talks, after all.

    As grown-up gamers, we might not like the powergaming tendencies of a portion of the gaming population, but what right do we have to say “WotC shouldn’t be making product for these people”? I agree with you that this product is probably not for me, although as a PA and Wil Wheaton fan, it may actually be something I enjoy. But really, you cannot expect a publisher, who wants to make money and stay in business to be too concerned with “being taken seriously as a hobby”. To be more than “simplistic hack&slash adventuring” (which is all RPG’s were designed for, in the long-ago Chainmail days), you have to be willing to DIY, and to pick and choose what game and what parts of the game you want to use.

    It isn’t WotC’s responsibility to set the tone for the gaming industry. If you want to see where that gets you, go hang out at the Forge. The blurb for this product is not my cup of tea (unless it’s sarcastic), but I can’t fault them for making it – I’m betting it will sell fairly well, and probably not just to the powergamers.
    .-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..4e Sandboxing =-.

  15. I have recently bought the Strategy Guide, and am thoroughly enjoying reading it. In fact, it’s the only 4e book I’ll be reading cover to cover apart from PHB1. I love the cartoons, I love the questionnaires, I love the reflections on he game. If, on the way home from a game, you love talking about tactics and strategy “out of character”, or about the interplay between being a player and a character, or any other more “philosophical” issues about gaming, then you would love this.

    It’s not purely a power gamer’s book – in fact, it explicitly points out that sub-optimal characterisation is also a source of much enjoyment. It mentions, in a section called “Playing against Expectations”, that you can play a dwarf wizard, a halfling barbarian or a dragonborn rogue and have great fun, even though some racial and class elements jar. But if you’re also interested in Builds, or why your character can’t hit anything, or the decisions beyond Heroic tier, then a little advice is no bad thing.

    I never fully understand the use of “power gamer” as a term of abuse. It was used against me in a Deathmatch when my wizard did a good roll using a Flaming Sphere. I equally enjoy the role-playing in a tavern as much as killing monsters, in fact I enjoy role-playing IN the combat, if necessary making sub-optimal choices if they reflect hat my character would do. But at some point, numbers do matter. Presumably a purist “role-player” would happily play a character with all sub-10 stats, which is fine, but may make them ineffectual (or dead) in a party of “heroes”.

    My advice is, never judge a book by its cover, or even its blurb. Read it first.

Comments are closed.