Understanding Different Audiences While Teaching

My teaching experience comes from teaching mainly 100- and 200-level computer programming classes.  There is an enjoyable aspect to these classes, a nurturing feeling of helping someone get started.  Early classes also have less complications from a prerequisite perspective.  Developing a course plan always involves identifying the starting point, but with intro classes at least that target is a bit narrower.  It’s safe to start by assuming the students know none of the lingo and are clean slates.  I’d like to discuss this topic by challenging the idea that students are truly clean slates, and then discuss ways of accommodating more students.

Room of Clean Slates

Teaching programming can be unlike other subjects because many of the core concepts will be brand new for students.  Even in this case, it’s dangerous to see students as starting from nowhere or proceeding at a similar pace to each other.  Take an example of a student that has attempted the subject before.  This could could go several ways.  That student may have a multi-week advantage and breeze through the course, starving for more challenge.  On the other hand, that experience may not be as strong as the student expects, giving false confidence and encouraging slacking off when the student isn’t as knowledgeable as they presumed.

Let’s talk about a few other factors that can affect an otherwise “blank slate” student base. One is teaching style.  Lecture format and out-of-classroom expectations will change how students perform in a class.  Some students respond well to thorough lectures that require extensive notes.  That can be a big hinderance for other students who prefer interactive case study examples.  Outside of class, book readings, notes, and rote exercises are the preferred studying style, whereas other students respond better to projects and other “practical” assignments.

Self-confidence has many facets that affect class performance. I’ve found that especially good students can have a confidence-shattering moment when a subject is as foreign and challenging as programming can be.  When that student finds themselves struggling at the point where they have typically gained control of a class, they assume the material “isn’t for them.”  It’s possible to accidentally derail a hard working (but struggling) student’s hopes by unintentionally diminishing his or her future in the subject.  On the flip side, avoid giving a confident student reason to believe that success will be automatic in the class, as brainy students are exactly the ones you should be encouraging to work harder.

Lastly, I’ve found that certain other subject backgrounds can make for unusual advantage or disadvantage in my classes.  Most surprisingly, I’ve found that math majors can be tripped up early on, despite programming borrowing many of the terms of mathematics.  Though the terms are similar, the meaning of those terms are tweaked in almost every case, making for lots of misleading twists and turns for students.  On the opposite end, I’ve found that subjects such as music theory and chemistry provide learning skills that help with absorbing the abstract concepts of computer science.

Accommodating More Students

Reaching more students comes from two primary approaches: providing a larger range of materials and evaluating student achievement in a wider variety of forms.  Rather than filling class time with pure lecture, mix in other segments.  Follow-along demonstrations or interactive reviews of class material are easy ways to change the pace of the class.  A really cool idea (that I stole from my teacher Sergio Antoy) involves having students give mini-presentations on recently completed homework.  Students in the audience really relate to the students giving the mini-presentations.  Presenters also often spoke about the bugs and struggles they had while doing the assignment, which helps other students feel like they aren’t alone.  Small group discussions are also good, though you want to make sure they have clear goals so they don’t waste time.

I try to allow for different kinds of learners outside of class, too.  I provide optional practice quizzes, worksheet-like bonus assignments, extra programs to read, book readings, interesting web links, and all of the in-class material (slides, notes, sample programs, old quiz guides, etc).  It takes extra time to prepare this material, but it can save you time later when the end of the term has fewer panicked students.  At the start of class I do a quick (10 minute) quiz on the last class’s material, and then immediately review the answers after they’ve been turned in.  This helps students stay honest with themselves by providing a checkpoint on their knowledge of the previous class.  It also gets them used to my question writing style, which helps alleviate stress on test days.  I do a midterm and final exam as well as a “proficiency demo,” where students come into the lab and do a relatively easy pass/fail programming assignment in an hour.

Different Perspectives

Few students will appreciate all of the material you prepare and present, but all of them will appreciate some part.  Careful observance of student progress and use of student feedback forms will help identify symptoms of problems that can be improved upon.  Most of all, know that inclusive education helps spread beyond those predisposed to the subject matter.  Improving breadth of teaching styles improves the diversity of the students involved.  Never deny a student’s struggle by saying a piece of material “isn’t really that hard.”  Take seriously each students attempts at learning and growth, and you’ll find that a wide variety of students are capable of impressive results.

Making Grades Feel Fair

I haven’t blogged much about teaching, but I’d like to start.  I had an enjoyable and successful run as a programming teacher for the last few years.  When I teach, one of my priorities is gaining the confidence of students.  Students have a tenuous trust in teachers, earned from the uneven quality of instruction they receive.  I draw upon my own experience as a student (mostly recently finishing a Master’s degree) to inform my strategy for gaining that trust.  Personally, I am frustrated by situations where tests feel unfair or when I’m not clear what material I am responsible for.  I know many high quality students can be turned off by unclear and unfair policies.  Good students are often your best allies during the first few weeks of a class, so putting some time into creating a fair-seeming grading policy is a good first step towards winning over your best students.

Why Grading Can Be Unfair

Even a good teacher has unfair elements in his or her class.  Recognizing these problem areas is a key first step toward improving fairness.  Some examples of unfair elements in a class:

  • Incorrect or vague test questions
  • Lecture or reading assignments don’t match tests or assignments
  • Grading accuracy of teacher, TA, or grader isn’t high
  • Badly planned deadlines, such as big assignments due the day of a big test
  • Poorly defined rubric and assignments with hard-to-evaluate deliverables
  • Unintended absences are too punishing or give too much leeway

I hope to talk in specifics about these points in the future.  Suffice it to say that it’s difficult to completely eliminate any one of these factors, let alone all of them.

How to Recognize When Students Feel Cheated

You get only one comment about a particular unfair element, so it’s important to keep your ears open.  Sometimes these comments can be confrontational or even annoying.  It’s important to not feel defensive when this occurs, as you aren’t alone in making mistakes or oversights when planning material.  Imagine a smart aleck student pointing out that you that either of two options in a multiple choice question are correct.  At first this feels like a contest, but remember that students approach these tests trying to get the best grade possible.  Though some people take pride in pointing out errors, students are typically more concerned with losing credit for a question they feel capable answering otherwise.

Analysis of assignments or tests can also help reveal unfairness.  When you notice the same assignment deliverable being repeatedly missed, examine the possible causes.  Occasionally, it’s not your fault.  I’ve seen student achievement dip towards the end of the term, especially during summer classes.  If not that, though, it’s probably a disconnect between your perception of what the students understand and the reality.  Was this material covered hastily towards the end of a lecture?  Did this subject only appear in the book reading, without any support from assignments or class time?  Was the question worded too broadly to direct you towards the answer you expected?  Trace these symptoms backwards to the cause.  If a piece of information was never reinforced, it’s importance can be lost.  Assignment and test results are your most objective sources of information on what students learned.

Adjusting For Unfairness

Therefore, I see unfairness as something that is kept in check, not completely eliminated.  How can we counterbalance negative feelings and improve classroom morale? A simple method is to “fix” bad test questions by giving credit for an unfair question whether or not the test takers got the “right” answer.  Another one is giving full credit on a homework assignment that was too challenging whether or not the full work was completed.  While “reparations” for teaching mistakes are a good front-line defense, they are time consuming and finicky.  What teacher wants to go back and re-grade an entire test after learning a few questions weren’t fair?

After a period of experimentation, I settled on well-structured bonus credit as the best way to adjust for unfairness.  Imagine a test with 30 questions.  What portion of these questions were unfair for one reason or another? Maybe one to three of them?  Then, provide students with three bonus questions.  This is a proactive way to compensate students for imperfect material while encouraging a variety of useful behaviors.  Bonus questions are exciting for students.  Difficult bonus questions reward students who read ahead or study book material.

Proactive use of bonus questions help when dealing with the previously mentioned “smart aleck” student. When they try to nickel and dime you asking for more points, you can ask them if their problems with the test exceed the bonus questions in the test.  If not, they’ve already been compensated.  You can then be grateful for their correction without their grade also hanging in the balance.

Bonus questions aren’t a new idea, but I also build a second kind of bonus credit on top of that concept.  Each term I would have a wide array of bonus credit activities, such as “study guide” exercise sheets, optional presentations, peer tutoring, and even fun things like bringing in snacks for the class.  I offer about 20 of these opportunities, but then I would “cap” credit at five or six.  That way, a student could do five small, rote practice assignments to “cap out” or could do a presentation and two assignments, or other combinations.  Any highly proactive student “caps out” about halfway through the term, though they often do all of the optional assignments despite that.  By offering a relatively small, but clear and consistent way to earn credit, I could reliably get 60-70% of my students to complete at least a few of these bonus activities.  Students feel like they are sneaky bonus, when they’re really being “tricked” into learning more and having fun doing it.

The Feeling of Fairness

It would be wonderful to provide a complete, objective and fair grading system that doesn’t require compensation.  Though quality can always be improved, it’s not clear to me that perfection can be achieved in this regard.  Instead, I recommend using the excitement and enthusiasm for bonus credit as a way to counterbalance any unforeseen unfairness in class structure.  In my end-of-term survey, I often read comments like “The class can be hard, but you can earn points back by doing bonus assignments.”  Giving students a feeling that they have some control over their grade, even when the class is difficult, is highly motivating.  When students feel responsible for each assignment, they will pay attention in class, ask more questions, and turn in assignments on time.  When extra effort is rewarded with extra credit, that feeling of control is enhanced further.  A properly motivated classroom is much more fun to teach, leading toward everyone having a good time.  This achieves my goal of winning the confidence of the students and is one of the contributing factors to the enjoyable classes I was able to teach.

Impressions of D&D Fifth Edition

(Though out of date, you could read my three D&D Playtest articles: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3)

What I’ve Played

My first D&D 5E play was on the day the Player’s Handbook released to retail stores, which was early August. We gathered a group and played a whole ton of of Hoard of the Dragon Queen over the next few days, with me as DM and with 4 players (Druid, Cleric, Fighter, Bard).  That game is around level 4 and 5 now.

After that I started playing (as a stock Fighter from the basic game) in a friend’s game.  We just hit level 4 in that game.

I also ran an all-day dungeon delve for my friend’s birthday, for which my wife and I made pre-gens (and level up plans up to 4) for all of the PHB classes.

More Background

Character backgrounds were the early surprise for me.  My first group had lots of fun rolling random traits on the background tables.  We often had backgrounds that pulled a character in different directions.  What makes a cleric a sailor? What kind of druid makes for a shifty smuggler? Those required some creativity on our part and helped us have nuanced characters from day 1.

One smart part of the background system is its prominence on the character sheet.  These prompts are one or two sentences, such as “If there’s a plan, I’ll forget it.” or “I’m convinced of the significance of my own destiny and blind to the risk of failure.” When a player needs a quick piece of advice on how his or her character should act, there’s usually a piece of inspiration in those four traits.

Level One Experience

I like the character creation experience.  Backgrounds are great, races have cool sub-race variety, and the classes are well distinguished.  The core 6 stats still feel pretty straightforward: pump your primary stat and then weigh the power of your secondary stat with Constitution. Saving throws are more prominent in 5E, which helps reward other stats, but not enough to make it worth watering down your class abilities.

There’s a gigantic gulf in complexity between characters that can cast spells and characters that can’t.  All level one spell casters have around 20-30 spells to read between cantrips and level one spells.  Each caster class also has somewhat different rules on how many spells they should pick. Clerics can pick anything each day, wizards pick everything up front, warlocks have all encounter-based spells instead of normal slots. I do think this is good variety, but since it’s all similar-but-not-the-same, most players have been confused at first.  In contrast, Characters that can’t cast spells from the start are very simple at level one.  At best they have a melee and ranged attacks to choose from but not much else.

Levels Two and Three

One of the smartest things about 5E is how quickly characters advance to level two and three.  Getting a new (usually simple) power after the first few battles is a nice reward.  Then, probably after the first arc of the adventure, everyone hits level three.  At level three, most classes pick between one of several paths for their characters.  Fighters can opt between straight forward crits, tricky combat moves, or light spell casting.  Paladins choose between upholding good, protecting nature, or seeking vengeance against great foes.  I think it’s great that these big choices only come after players have had a few sessions to practice their character.  Loading all of it at level one would be overwhelming.

These customizations are cool, though some classes (and choices) seem underdeveloped compared to others.  Barbarians about a page and a half of these level three paths, whereas wizards have many pages devoted to their various choices.  Even some paths within the same class compare poorly against each other.  The fighter path that leads to double crits mean that (on average) every tenth attack does double damage instead of every twentieth.  The alternate choice deals double damage (plus cool effects like tripping, healing, moving) on up to four attacks per battle.  That’s way more powerful than the critical hit choice and more tactically interesting, too.  I appreciate that there’s an option to pick a straightforward head-smasher, I just wish it was reasonably close in power level.  It’s no fun letting your group down.

Everything Is a Bit Different

I’m happy with the rules for 5E overall, though it’s been odd getting used to them.  Everything seems to be tweaked a bit.  When do Opportunity Attacks trigger?  What happens when you cast a spell in melee range?  How do you get combat advantage?  What happens when you assist on a skill roll?  More things are free actions, but which spells are bonus actions and which are full actions?  Does that spell last for a minute or until the caster fails a concentration check?  Is your “proficiency bonus” the same as your “attack bonus”?

None of these are hard to look up, but they all seem different than past editions.  Each one takes up time at the table, if  players or DMs are curious enough.  As gamers open up to a wider variety of editions, switching between each set of little rules can be distracting.

Overall, however,  I like 5E’s balance between approachability, depth, and respect for D&D tradition.  I’ll be playing more of it and would generally choose it as my “default” for a new campaign or one-shot adventure.  More impressions to come in the future!

D&D Next Playtest Nearing Its End, Still Making Big Changes

(If you haven’t read anything about D&D Next so far, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of my articles covering the changes in the system. Some of that stuff is now a bit old/obsolete, but the majority still applies)


Skills are gone. A large part of the game since 3rd edition, the removal of skills further pushes DDN towards simplicity.  Knowledge skills have been replaced with Lores. Things such as “Cultural Lore”, “Natural Lore”, and “Planar Lore” reflect a character’s knowledge.  Having a relevant lore is a huge bonus, granting a +10 on checks.

Class-, race- and feat-specific bonuses are pretty similar to before.  Rather than getting a +2 on Perception, Elves’ Keen Vision gives Advantage (roll twice, keep higher) when trying to spot or listen.  Half-Orcs get a similar Advantage on Intimidate checks.  Some of these bonuses could be a bit less specific and a bit more fluid than they were in editions past, mainly because the change in how these checks are made.

Ability checks (d20 + ability score bonus) are the main way skill-like checks are now resolved.  The playtest documents give examples for all of the ability scores, and they are what you would expect. Each ability score that was tied to a skill is now the main source of bonuses to actions related to that skill.  Want to be good at climbing or jumping? High Strength will help you get there.  Want to sense someone’s motive (aka Insight)? Wisdom will make you better at it.

Skills and Scaling and Stacking and NUMBERS

Previous DDN playtests removed the majority of scaling factors from the game. These changes reduced the rate at which characters grow in power as they level up.  The removal of skills and skill training reduces things again, but in a different way.  Skill training locks in at level 1 and stays roughly the same throughout the character’s career.  With the removal of skills, characters are more similar to each other at level 1 and thus stay relatively closer as they level.  Let’s look at a 4E situation where skills were a bit problematic and then discuss how DDN’s changes address it.

Aklanth, the goliath warlord, and Isab, the deva wizard, both want to jump across a pit.  Due to his high strength, class skill, and multiple goliath bonuses, Aklanth has +12 to this roll and may roll it twice at level 1. Isab has low strength, no class skill, and no racial bonuses, giving him -1 on this roll.

On a d20, roll-twice-keep-highest raises the average roll by just under +4 (see Tyler Akins’ useful page for more info). This means that Aklanth’s average roll is approximately 26, whereas Isab’s is 9.5. Though it seems cool that Aklanth is appropriately superior at his specialty, these numbers create problems at actual table play.

A DC10 pit is pretty challenging (50/50) for Isab, but is below trivial for Aklanth. Even a DC16 pit is almost totally trivial for Aklanth and borders on impossible for Isab.  A pit that would provide Aklanth a decent challenge (50/50) would be DC26, but even with heavy situational bonuses would be impossible for Isab. These numbers separate further as characters level up, as Aklanth Strength grows and he gains equipment and feats to make him even better.

Highly differentiated skill levels makes coming up with DCs quite difficult.  DCs also need to be adjusted based on party composition, and makes DCs in printed adventures often a bad fit for a particular party.  Skill challenges can turn into a weird search of everyone’s character sheets, trying to justify how a fighter fits into a diplomatic scenario or how a cleric aids in a white water boating challenge.  It also makes group skill checks, such as a group Stealth check, basically impossible as most monsters’ passive perception will crush the feeble rolls of non-Rogue characters.

When looking at DDN, we’ll see that these characters would still be quite differentiated, but no so much so that they are in totally different leagues from level 1.  Aklanth’s ability bonus would probably be +4 instead of +5, due to ability scores being somewhat lower in DDN.  With skills gone, he’d lose his +5 skill bonus, too.  Goliaths are not in the playtest, but we could infer based on other races that they’d probably have Advantage on jumps and climbs  Also due to the removal of skills, Aklanth wouldn’t have a +2 racial bonus to athletics.

Instead of +12 as well as a double-roll on jumping, Aklanth would have a much more modest +4 plus double roll (now called Advantage in DDN). Isab would probably still have his feeble -1.  This might seem like a huge nerf, but there’s still a large amount of differentiation between these characters!  See this chart, remembering that DCs are much lower across the board in DDN to compensate:

DC Aklanth Isab
Easy (7) 98% 70%
Tough (13) 80% 30%
Almost Impossible (18) 58% 10%

You can see that we don’t even have to hit 20 to start to really challenge Aklanth, and his bonuses from Strength and his race still give him a ton of differentiation from other party members.  Where this gets especially interesting is when a character has some bonus (perhaps due to race) but isn’t specialized.  Let’s take Orilo, a Goliath Cleric who only has a +1 bonus from strength, but has Advantage due to her race.  Compared to Aklanth, she’s a pretty proficient jumper:

DC Aklanth Orilo
Easy (7) 98% 80%
Tough (13) 80% 70%
Almost Impossible (18) 58% 36%

There is a solid, but not huge difference between the characters.  In 4E, Aklanth would still be over 100% when it came to DC18!  Keeping skill checks differentiated, but not radically so, should make skill-like checks much more fun in general in DDN.

New opportunities

Removing skills also removes some cookie cuttering from the game, and will hopefully improve and encourage improvisation.  What skill should it be to tie someone up with a rope?  Well, without skills, one instead looks at the ability scores. A dwarf might use his Strength to tighten the rope or Wisdom to know some common escape manuevers.  A elf might use Dexterity to make a particularly intricate knot or use Intelligence to remember of several advanced knots that are difficult to defeat.

I’m a fan of the “idea with justification” style of skill rolls, and I think simplifying the system allows for more of that.  It also greatly reduces what the players have to reference and remember, as it uses the same ability scores that spells, attacks, and other subsystems use.  The removal of skills is a deep cut, but I think it to be a reasonable one with significant advantages.


Feats are overhauled and are actually optional.  Every few levels, but not before level 4, characters get an Ability Score Improvement.  This grants two points which can be be use twice on one skill or spread between two.  ASIs come at different levels for each class, mainly to plug bonuses into levels that don’t have much else going on. Barbarians, for example, get ASIs at 4, 9, 13, and 18, whereas Clerics get them at 4, 6, 12, 16, and 19. Fighters, perhaps calling back to traditional Fighter bonuses to feats, have 7 levels with ASIs.

Instead of taking an ASI, a player may instead select a Feat. Because they are so rare and actual cost ability score points to take, they’re much more powerful than 3E or 4E. They’re almost like an entire Specialization track from early DDN playtests. For example, here is the Archery Master feat:

  • You gain proficiency with martial ranged weapons.
  • Attacking at long range doesn’t impose disadvantage on your ranged attack rolls.
  • Your ranged attacks ignore half cover and three-quarters cover.
  • Once on your turn when you use your action to make a ranged attack with a short bow or long bow, you can make one additional ranged attack with that bow, but all of the attacks that are part of the action take a –5 penalty to the attack roll.

That’s a lot! Another feat, Lucky, gives 3 rerolls of d20s per day. Tactical Warrior basically gives the whole Marking system from 4E to a character.

When you remember that you’re taking this over, say, +2 Dex, it makes more sense.  Feats are now an optional subsystem with ASIs being the main-line alternate.  Since Ability Checks are the replacement for skills, ASIs are also a good route for skill-minded character archetypes.


Subclasses are a new concept and have different names for each class: Paladins call them Oaths, Mages call them Schools, Rangers call them Favored Enemy.

Whatever they are called, subclasses are a mix of Class Features and Paragon Paths from 4E. You pick your subclass at level 3, and it gives a bonus every few levels.  Spellcaster classes generally get new spells available to them or bonuses with those spells.  Other classes get a variety of themed bonuses every few levels.

For example, the Fighter has three subclasses: Gladiator, Knight, and Warrior.

Gladiator grafts in the majority of the expertise-and-manuever system from earlier DDN playtests, and is fairly complex.  Each turn you get a bunch of smaller add-on maneuvers to choose from to modify your actions. It’s pretty complex but probably not moreso than the average mid-level 4E character.

Knight is mainly a Mark/Taunt defender with a few complex powers related to getting and keeping your enemies’ attention.

Warrior crits more often and really hard, but not much else.

The DDN dev team seems to be doing several things with subclasses.  Subclasses provide a lot of plug-and-play versatility in a class.  They also allow players to choose the level of complexity they want in their class, allowing for a 4E-style choice between PHB- and Essentials-level complexity. Finally, new subclasses will make fine fodder for supplemental material like splat books and web site articles.


Wizards has mentioned that this is probably the second to last playtest packet that will be released, so we’re starting to see the overall structure for character creation firm up:

  • Strong emphasis on character class and ability checks
  • A little flavor provided by background and race
  • Magic items, feats, and subclasses provide few scaling bonuses but instead give large orthogonal bonuses

Much of the philosophy of DDN has stayed the same from the start: simpler, fewer numbers, orthogonal bonuses, and optional complexity for those that want it.  I’m pretty happy with recent developments in the system, especially as they aid making the game more inclusive for a variety of players.

Developments in D&D Next

D&D Next development has progressed since my first post on the new system and I want to break down the changes.  DDN is radical in the game design world: rather than try to upgrade or rework a previous system, DDN attempts to break down and simplify D&D. Buckle up, because we’re going real deep.

Understanding Scaling Factors

Scaling from leveling up is the main target of DDN’s revisions. Here are a few examples of scaling factors (roughly corresponding to 4E):

  • Each even level, your base attack bonus increases by one.
  • Every 4-6 levels, players upgrade their magic weapon and armor to new versions with a higher attack or armor bonus.
  • Characters increase hit points by four to six every level.
  • Weapon expertise is an additional feat that increases attack bonus by one per ten levels.
  • Strikers typical find or buy specific bracers that increase the damage of their basic attacks.
  • Skills rolls include half the character’s level.
  • Characters add two points to two ability scores every four levels.

Scaling rarely opens up new options. It makes you better at certain things, but generally, the things you’re trying to do also become harder. A level 13 rogue might be better at unlocking chests than a level 3, but the locks he finds in his level 13 dungeons are harder to open. A fighter might have +21 to hit at high levels compared to +6 at low levels, but monsters have ACs that are 15 higher to compensate. Scaling is an arms race.

Recent RPGs have cut back on scaling factors. In Final Fantasy 13, there are no armor upgrades, only attack and HP upgrades. Whatever you attack damage is determines how much HP you knock off. Damage is understandable by players rather than being indecipherable math involving armor, damage reduction, shields, etc. Numbers can obscure the tactical possibilities of a game. In D&D’s case, it can hamper the creative aspects as well.

DDN axes scaling factors. Here are a few examples:

  • Attack bonus goes up about 1/2 to 1/3 as fast.
  • AC doesn’t seem to scale by level at all.
  • Ability scores start a fair bit lower (you’ll expect your best stat to be around 16-17).
  • Hit points go up by Constitution mod per level, which is generally 1-3 points lower than the old class-based HP scaling.
  • There is little-to-no baked in magic weapon/armor expectation, especially on the armor side.
  • Skills do not scale by level, though certain class features can increase them over time.
  • There is little-to-no treasure expectation outlined in the DM document.

In some ways, these changes are terrifying. Try to take a breath. The goal here is to make character progression less number-based and more about new options and tricks. Here are some shifts that could occur when transitioning from 4E to DDN:

  • Locks, traps, and other skill-based challenges do not need to have level-regimented placement (or awkward down/upscaling rules).  A lock that is nigh-impossible at level 3 will still be difficult at level 9.
  • Monsters will not be obsoleted nearly as quickly and, as a result, there is less need for hundreds of different monster variations just to provide enough choices at each level.
  • It’s less necessary to dump your favorite sword just because it’s a +1 and you’re level 9 now.
  • A low level but highly influential mobster boss could possess a massive treasure trove. Riches are less directly correlated to combat ability.
  • Similarly, magic item prices don’t scale nearly as fast. Items retain some of their value as you level up. In 4E, even an item 2 or 3 levels old is nearly worthless.

New Progression Details

If numbers don’t go up, why level up? To get two hit points? There don’t seem to be strong patterns yet, but here’s a compiled look at class progression:

Level Bonus
1 Lots of class stuff, first Specialty bonus
2 Extra tier 1 spell or a Manuver for melee classes
3 New spell tier, second Specialty bonus
4 Extra tier 2 spell. Maneuver+Expertise upgrade
5 New spell tier, not much for melee?
6 Extra spell, third specialty bonus, maneuver
7 New spell tier, ?? for melee

Some rough patches aside, progression is all about new options. You’ll have new tricks every other level, sometimes two at once. Progression is mostly about these new options and what they allow you to do. Clerics and Wizards are roughly as you’d expect, but melee have some new details to cover.

Expertise and Maneuvers

A pretty clear vision for these classes have started to emerge for martial classes. Each class gains, depending on level, 1-3 expertise dice to use every round to use one of several maneuvers. You may spend all your expertise on one maneuver or, if possible, split it up over a few different ones over the course of the round.

The E&M system unites a number of mechanics for each class. For Fighters, it combines marking, total defense, power attack, cleave, fortitude bonuses, and others. For rogues, it combines sneak attack, tumble, skill boosts, reflex bonuses, and more. Almost all class features run through this one mechanic. As a way to simplify the base class, I think it could be successful. Expertise dice are both your resource for the turn and a randomized element to add excitement.

Let’s see a basic Expertise example. A level 2 Fighter, let’s call him Guthrie, has 1d6 Expertise, which means he can do one Maneuver during the round. Guthrie is pretty defense-oriented and has three Maneuvers: Deadly Strike (which all fighters have), Protect, and Parry. During his turn, he might hit a goblin and may then decide to spend his expertise die to Deadly Strike and deal an extra 1d6 damage. If he misses, or if he feels his allies might need his help, he will have that dice remaining after his turn. Before his next turn, his nearby wizard buddy has an orc bear down on him, scoring a hit for 3 damage. The wizard needs his help, so Guthrie spends his die to Protect and negate 1d6 damage. If Guthrie is himself hit after the wizard, he no longer has expertise dice remaining and can not use Parry to negate some of the damage against himself.

I imagine most players will opt to funnel lots of expertise dice into damage, it gives them a nice consolation prize when they miss. This general flow also rewards players for taking a variety of maneuvers rather than pure offensive ones. I hope that the maneuvers will be innovative and provide cool possibilities when combined with specialties.

Specialties and Feats

I mentioned in my first post that Specialties are meant to serve a portion of the role that classes used to fill. It seems that specialties have been deemphasized in this latest update. Now, specialties seem to be feat tracks, similar to how a college might offer a track of related courses to ensure that a particular topic is well covered. Feats are as free-form as ever, but specialties seem to ensure that there are four feats that suit each particular specialty.

For example, the Stealth Specialist track will give you Hide in Shadows at level 1, a feat that grants three things: training in Sneak (nee stealth), the ability to hide in dim light, and low-light vision up to ten feet. Any class can take this, and since ability scores are less spiky than before, it’s reasonable for anyone to chose to become stealthy. At level 3, you could opt to take the Master Sneak feat,which guarantees you a minimum of 9 on any Sneak check. Not bad! At higher levels you can improve your sneaking abilities by allow you to move from cover to cover and escaping after taking an action.

From a game design perspective, the specialties system is a contract between the designer and the player. It says “I promise to design at least three other feats that work with each feat.” Those with 3E and 4E experience will appreciate this guarantee.


My main concern in earlier playtests were HP and healing. The adventuring day is drastically shortened by the removal of most non-magical healing. Although it doesn’t relate to progression, there have been two new experimental healing rules that may signal a recognition of these issues.

The (non-experimental) ruleset says that characters have one “hit dice” per level based on class (d8 for tough classes, less for others). Between battles, you may roll these dice to heal. Translated from 4E, you get roughly one surge per level per day. The unusual part of this is that low level characters have a very low tolerance for pain and high level characters can heal quite readily. Gaining extra hit dice may be one of the larger bonuses one gets as one levels up.

The first experimental ruleset provides a more old-school approach to healing. Each hour of rest grants HP equal to character level plus constitution modifier, or around 10-25% health. Resting for 8+ hours essentially restores all health via a mostly complicated formula.

The second experimental ruleset is more 4E-like and thus much faster. After a 4E-style short rest (5 minutes), regain 1+level+con mod HP, meaning around 30 minutes off will fully recover anyone. Once you are “bloodied” (drop below half health), however, you can not naturally heal back above half health without a long rest. This bloodied threshold implies that some wounds can not be simply shaken off. It retains the excitement and danger of combat and means that characters who enter a battle bloodied put themselves at significant danger. At the same time, a party that mostly routs their first battle can simply shake off the dirt and be at full strength heading into the second battle.

Though these rulesets are experimental and rough, I appreciate the acknowledgement that healing could be better handled. I look forward to Wizard’s further developments in this area.


DDN has developed nicely and I can see a strong vision for the product. This is not a ruleset for a videogame. It is meant to be interpreted, warped, adapted, and evolved. Character classes, backgrounds, and specialties are not being built to stack up to exactly equal on the damage meter. Many of us 4E players are a bit worried that the game might be significantly broken in that area. Despite that, I have great hope that DDN will instead be a game for non-powergaming playerbase who simply desire a general-purpose fantasy roleplaying game with deep character customization and reasonably low complexity.

Connecting Xbox/PS3 and a Computer to the Same Monitor

By brother emailed me asking what to do to connect an xbox and his mac mini to the same screen.  I’ve encountered similar situations connecting consoles, multiple computers, or other devices to screens.  There are a two basic strategies.

TV Centric

If you’re intending to put everything in a living room with a couch, your setup could be:

  • Try to connect everything you’ve got via HDMI to either a TV or your receiver
  • Use a TV appropriate for your view distance
  • Use a wireless keyboard and mouse for the TV

The keyboard and mouse situation can be the trickiest part of the TV setup.  Not many people use these setups.  If you have a good coffee table, it can work, otherwise you want to look for lapboard-style KB&M setups.  Logitech also makes a mouse specifically intended for use on couch surfaces.  If you don’t intend to be playing serious amounts of PC games, these sorts of solutions can work.

Monitor Centric

If you can be close to your screen, a monitor can be a cheap and high quality solution.  Here’s are the general considerations:

  • Find a monitor with several ports
  • Figure out what the best plug matches will be (HDMI for console, DVI for pc, etc)
  • Decide on your speaker solution

I bought a 24 inch ASUS monitor, though it seems there’s a slightly smaller one at deep discount.  My general strategy for picking a screen would be to pick a size, then look for the cheapest monitor that also has a lot of reviews on NewEgg.  Be warned that cheap monitors will have awful speakers, so you’ll have to consider your speaker situation.  You can find speakers with multiple inputs, which can work, though you may need an adapter to split console audio out from the HDMI cable.

Clever Design in Cthulu Saves the World

This is a fun little Xbox/PC/soon iOS game in the old Dragon Warrior style.  It’s cheap ($1-3, depending on platform), well made, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  The developer is also making the upcoming Penny Arcade sequel, which looks great!  There are some other reviews of the game out there, so I want to focus on some particular game mechanics that I liked.

Improving the Loop

The dungeon-crawling gameplay loop of Dragon Warrior-style games is:

  • Reach a new dungeon and begin to explore it
  • Get in a random battle
  • Complete the battle
  • Heal up
  • (Repeat until you either return to town to recover or complete the dungeon)

Around this is the larger loop of RPG progression:

  • Fight a bunch of monsters
  • Level up or find new weapons and armor
  • Equip or enable an upgrade
  • Change your strategy to take into account the new powers (or new monsters)
  • (Repeat)

Cthulu Saves the World looks to keep the gameplay similar to older games, so improvements to the game must come from improvements to these gameplay loops.

Dungeon Crawling

While in a dungeon, your main resource is health and mana.  Health drops fast and is refilled by mana and potions.  Mana is a longer-term resource: once you run out of mana, it’s about time to head back to town.

Cthulu tweaks a key piece of this loop.  After each fight, the party is completely healed and a small amount of mana is restored.  It saves trips to the menu after every battle.  You spend more time fighting and exploring.  The change goes deeper than that, though.

Monsters in Cthulu are fiercer than normal, strong enough to take out party members faster than you’d expect.  Each round, monsters get 10% stronger.  So round 2 is 110% and round 10 is 190%.  Long battles get tense as monsters bash your party as fast as you can heal up.  You need to play smart because battles can’t go on and on.

In other RPGs, individual battles need to be easier to avoid depleting the party too quickly.  The average battle is somewhat easy, even dull.  If you are strong enough, strategy is unnecessary.  Cthulu subverts this lull by making individual battles more interesting and challenging.

Like the healing change, this helps the whole loop be more fun.

Leveling Up

There are many modern ways to make level progression fun.  Diablo 3, Mass Effect, and Witcher 2 all have great ideas.  They aren’t very retro, though.  They’re quite menu heavy and complicated, which is a poor fit for the 16-bit aesthetic.  Cthulu has a simpler approach.

When a character levels up, the player is presented with a choice between two options.  These options might be purely stat based:

  • Option A: +40 Strength
  • Option B: +30 Max HP, +20 Max MP

You might chose between two abilities:

  • Option A: Fireball (Deal 61 damage to one group)
  • Option B: Lightning Bolt (Deal 105 damage to one enemy)

You can shape your characters.  Take a lot of Strength to make your basic attack stronger.  Improve durability and survive longer in dungeons.  Chose to improve your single target spells, or your slowing spells, or your spells that spread damage across the whole enemy group.  Each character can be specialized for a particular role or you can spread abilities across multiple characters.

Sometimes you have a choice between improving several secondary stats or one especially desirable stat.  The game designer has supplied several many of these temping choices.  Here is an example of my favorite sort of choice:

  • Option A: +30 Magic
  • Option B: Lightning Bolt 3 (Increase damage dealt by lightning bolt by 80%)

This is great.  You chose between making all of your spells by a small amount or one specific spell by a TON.  You don’t need 20 strong spells; each character only needs maybe 5 to 10.  So you craft your characters to have the specific spells you want.  You’ll have to let some of the specific upgrades pass so you can take the basic upgrades you’ll need to keep up.

The system is simple (a quick choice every 10 battles) but gives satisfying customization (many different possible builds).  It feels like a feature that could be in an old RPG, but it’s a bit more clever than what you’d see in those games.


Cthulu makes small tweaks to the Dragon Warrior formula but uses them well:

  • Characters heal between fights, reducing tedium and allowing for tougher fights
  • Monsters get steadily stronger each round, requiring smart play
  • Level ups use a simple system of choices to create good customization

As I mentioned in the introduction, Cthulu Saves the World is a good value and isn’t too long.  I recommend it!

Understanding D&D Next

The public play test of D&D Next has been released.  This preview allows us to get an idea of where they are going with the the successor to 4th edition.  Their stated goal is to simplify the game and return to the roots of the game.  I’d like to break down some of the major changes, using 4E as a starting point, but with references to past editions where useful.

Character Building Blocks

Background and Theme to rise to the prominence of Race and Class

Themes were introduced late in 4E’s lifecycle as a way to add some extra abilities and perks to a character.  In Dark Sun for example, you could add a Noble Adept theme to gain extra psionic power.  This is the best for psionic characters but it could also spice up another character.  In DDN, themes are integrated into the basic gameplay and seem to absorb what was formerly the “role” of the class.  Being a fighter in 4E also made you a defender.  Being a fighter in DDN just makes you a weapon swinging armor wearer.  If you want to be a defender, you’ll take the “guardian” theme, which confers bonuses similar to basic defender powers in 4E.

4E had a large number of classes due to the matrix created by multiplying the four roles (Defender, Striker, Leader, Controller) by the power sources (Martial, Divine, Arcane, Primal, Psionic, Shadow).  Psionic+Defender = Battlemind, for example.  Each class, over its 30 levels, has over a hundred powers.  Many of these powers overlapped or were similar to powers of other classes.  By pulling the role out of the class, the complexity of classes can be reduced substantially.

Backgrounds are also absorbing part of what classes use to provide, mainly skills.  Each background, which are things like “soldier” or “commoner”, provides three skills and a feat-like bonus ability.   Backgrounds in 4E gave smaller bonuses to two skills. Backgrounds help get some flavor for a character, and tying bigger bonuses give a bigger incentive for players to seriously consider them.

Spotlight on Ability Scores

Skills and non-AC defenses mostly removed

Skills have traditionally been the second most complicated system (after combat).  DDN simplifies the system by looking at the reality of skills in 4E.  In 4E, you’re good at the skills your ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, etc) support, decent at a few others, and useless at the rest.  To reflect this, DDN removes the massive skill list.  Instead, skill rolls go through your ability scores (so, Athletics would simply be a Strength check).  Your class, theme, and background can provide specific skill bonuses, and feat training seems likely.  This reduces the list of skills from 17 to just the 3-5 that you have.  Skill bonuses can be (and are, in the play test) much more specific.  The wizard has several different knowledge skills.

Fortitude, Reflex, and Will have been removed and saving throws are back.  The “Non-AC Defenses” (NADs) were part of 4E’s effort to differentiate physical attacks from magical ones and allow some physical attacks to target weaker attributes of opponents.  This has been all but scrapped in DDN and ordinary spells just target AC.  Those that don’t (generally, the most severe ones) cause the defending player to make a saving throw, which target an ability score appropriate for the spell’s effect.

Advantage and Status Effects

Combat advantage spread everywhere

Combat advantage from 4E is a +2 bonus that comes from many situations: flanking a monster with two players, attacking a character that is knocked down, attacking from stealth, etc.  There are -2 penalties as well, though they don’t have a generic name: attacking a character who is partially behind cover, attacking while dazed, etc.  Now these have been given a simpler name, advantage/disadvantage, and have been incorporated into all rolls, such as skill checks.  Advantage and disadvantage negate each other one for one, so if you have two advantageous conditions and one disadvantageous (such as stealth attacking a prone creature while drunk), you simply have advantage.  Multiple advantageous factors don’t provide a multiplied bonus, however.

The way the bonus works has also changed.  If you have advantage, you roll 2d20 and take the higher die.  With disadvantage, you take the lower.  This works out to roughly +2 or -2, but has an interesting effect on the cognitive load put on the person rolling the die.  I hear this conversation often: “I rolled a 19″ “Was that with combat advantage?” “I think so…” “Did you add the +1 for charging?” “Let me recount”. CA is common enough that this kind of confusion happens frequently.  In the situation I outlined, the character would simply have advantage and make the two rolls.

Hit Points and Healing Changes

Hit points per day massively reduced, randomized

This one is pretty deep, so we’ll start with pre-4E, then move forward.  Pre-4E healing was at the mercy of one’s supply of healing potions and the kindness of your clerics.  A character with 20 hp might be able to count on receiving one healing potion and one or two healing spells during a day of adventuring, effectively doubling his starting total for HP he could use before dying.  Keep in mind that neither of these are available at low levels, where potions are too expensive and clerics have few spells.  On the other end, one could hypothetically heal an infinite amount of damage in a day if she had a bag of healing potions.

4E introduced the concept of surges, which represent the amount of wounds a person can be healed in a day.  Each surge restores a quarter of your health, plus any bonus that the healer himself provides.  A weak character might have 6/day (or, 150% of his starting HP) and a tough character might have 12/day (or, 300% of her starting hp).  Anyone can spend surges during a rest, and a night’s sleep restores surges.

DDN seems to revert to a pre-4E system, with a small nod to non-magical healing.  Potions and healers operate in a pre-4E fashion.  Out of combat, characters can use healer’s kits to use their “hit dice”, which allow them to heal some portion of their health back.  A first level character has a single one of these hit dice, which are d6 for weaker characters up to d12 for stronger characters.  Such a character would have around 20 hit points, so a hit dice restores 5% of his health at its worst and 50% at best. For the rest of her healing, she depends completely on healers and healing potions.

This change dramatically shortens the adventuring day from 4E levels.  Your starting health is the majority of the total health you will be able to spend in the day.  As a defensive character, you could take three or four mild hits in a fight and be too wounded to even have a second fight.  This is one of the largest departures from 4E.

Combat and Monsters

Grid made optional, player and monsters powers simplified

The grid becoming optional doesn’t itself change much, but it does remove much of the “design space” of potential powers and spells.  Spells that rely on pushing and pulling or on specific ranges just don’t work.  It moves much of the remaining combat logic to the DM and players.  How many of these 10 goblins are surrounding the fighter?  Is the rogue behind the corner or just near it?  Did the ranger, as he backed away from the ogre, step backwards towards the wall or towards the door?

Player powers are pre-4E style.  Spellcaster have “X casts per day” restrictions and melee character have only basic attacks.  Monsters are similarly simplified.  Whereas there are 4 or 5 different types of low level goblins, each with 2 or 3 powers or tricks, there is one regular goblin and a much, much more powerful boss goblin.


Both the grid change and the simplification of monsters may just be part of the nature of this particular play test.  Wizards has said that they want to have add-on modules that add extra rules to the game, for DMs and players that wish to include them.  Melee characters may have expanded rules as part of this subsystem.  Other changes, like the prominence of ability scores and class changes, seem too deep to swap out with a module modification.  We’ll see what Wizards has in mind.  D&D is certainly a game of house rules, and we’ll see if this core gameplay can serve as a basis for all types of players.

Cube Building Updates

Cube Drafting is a fun way to get more use out of Magic cards.  I went over the basics in an earlier post.  I want to talk about my considerations when designing the Cube and then provide my thought process on some of the card swaps I made.


My first step was going through Em’s huge collection.  I (mostly) restricted myself to cards with the modern frame.  This keeps me in the last 8-ish years of cards but includes my favorite older sets, like Ravnica and Kamigawa.

My first focus was to narrow down the sorts of cards I wanted.  I had a few basic parameters:

  • Nothing super-bomb level.  Powerful cards are fine, but nothing that is a one-card win.  One example of a bad card would be Predator Dragon, as a giant flying haste creature can often end the game immediately.
  • Conditional removal instead of cheap removal.  Things that read “destroy target creature” are frowned upon.
  • Lots of “enters the battlefield” cards.  I love 2-for-1s or 1.5-for-1s.  This also helps enable other strategies like self-bounce and big, stabilizing plays.
  • Enchantments where possible.  Enchantments are notoriously vulnerable to 1-for-2s so I wanted to find all the good enchantments, especially in White.
  • Tribal where possible.  Nothing Lorwyn-level but I wanted each color to have its own tribes.
  • Proliferate!  I love proliferate and I have ways of boosting it with Graft and other +1/+1 and -1/-1 counter-based cards.
  • Gold where possible.  I’ve loved the sets that encourage multicolor and Hybrid is one of my favorite things.
  • Removal in all colors.  Certainly, colors should have their niches (red: damage, white: tapping, etc) but I want everyone to have fun keeping things under control.

I was able to pull out about 500 cards.  My friend Alex helped me trim it down to 360, which is the right size for 3 packs for 8 people or 4 packs for 6 people.  While Cubes can hypothetically be any size, keeping the pool to a limited size will help me keep it fit and well-designed.


From there, we played the Cube a few times.  My first round of notes:

  • White, especially control, was widely agreed to be the strongest.  There are a lot of tapping effects, especially when including blue.
  • Black came together with recursion, solid aggro and removal cards.  Despite the removal being strong, I felt control was a bit weak for Black.  Black+Red seemed well paired.
  • Blue was a good second color but lacking on its own.  Its tap and control effects seemed very strong but not enough to stand on its own.  I also felt that proliferate wasn’t quite strong enough yet.  Adding some tribal here will help.
  • Red had some good removal but didn’t have enough tools to succeed with all-in aggro.  Goblins wasn’t panning out so I wanted to find a new niche for Red.  I also felt like Red and Green wasn’t as strong a combo as I wanted.
  • Green had good mana generation but little to do with it.  There weren’t enough elves to make elves work and not enough tokens to make tokens work.  I needed to give Green a turbo shot of power, especially when working with its allies, White and Red.
  • Gold was under drafted and I think I misunderstood the role of Gold cards in draft.  I’ll need to focus on finding the best slots to give to multicolor cards, possibly by swapping in hybrid cards.


I have all the changes listed in a public google doc.  It even contains my individual rationale on each swap. My summary:


  • Mediocre creatures were swapped for Flankers, including a flanking lord.  This is only a mini-theme, but I feel like mini-themes might be a big part of what makes a Cube fun.
  • Several self-bouncing cards, themed around protecting your guys, were added.  I like this as anti-removal and as a way to recycle all the “enters the battlefield” effects.
  • White Crovax.  Black Crovax is also in, and both of them are bombs assuming you can work around their drawbacks.


  • A bit of Wizard synergy.  One is a counter.  The other is Azami, Lady of Scrolls. Solid on her own, she can be amazing if you can stick one or two other Wizards.
  • More cloning.  Cackling Counterpart provides a cool combat trick and Phyrexian Ingester is a new twist.
  • Merfolk Sovereign.  The two best Merfolk cards are a bit out of my budget, but Sovereign will reward players who collect a number of the already-existing Merfolk base.
  • More control.  Meloku will be strong and Mark of Eviction will be very interactive.  I added a few medium-power counter spells, careful to avoid outright denial.
  • A bit more Proliferate synergy.  Tezzeret’s Gambit, specifically, seemed like a no-brainer as well as Aether Figment as a win condition for Proliferate.


  • Infect, Wither, -1/-1 counters, etc.  I like this as another niche for Black: it may not always kill in one hit.  As discussed, I’m not fond of super strong removal, so being able to cripple creatures and kill them later sounds perfect.  Also, these effects greatly benefits from proliferate.
  • Viscera Dragger and Vigor Mortis boost number of straight recursion cards, while Postmortem Lunge and Screams from Within provide other ways to interacting with the graveyard.
  • Consuming Vapors may end up being above the curve.  I really love that the other player has some time to react to the second sacrifice, but near-guaranteed 2-for-1 removal does concern me.
  • Falkenrath Noble is hopefully the beginning of several Innistrad-block Morbid-style cards.  When I can find more slots for death-triggered abilities, I will.


  • Several elemental cards were added.  I wasn’t able to get the Elemental lord, but I will eventually.  There are a surprising number of Elemental cards out there.
  • More mid- and late-game burnout cards.  Magmatic Core especially feels like a great finisher for super aggressive Red-based decks.  Hopefully Devastating Summons will end at least one game.
  • Coal Stoker joins Priest of Ubarask as a bonus-cast enabler.  This feels super red to me.
  • Fury Charm serves as a strict upgrade to Shatter.  I’m hoping its occasionally main-deckable, especially if I can toss a few Suspends into the Cube.
  • Conquering Manticore was swapped in to replace Predator Dragon.  I don’t like the instant-win feel of Predator Dragon.  Manticore is probably equally strong but gives the opponent more time to react.  In a format with a lot of enchantment-based removal I feel its essential to give people time to react to bombs.




  • Red/Green got Rumbling Slum, Deadshot Minotaur, and Burning-Tree Shaman, which are all fun cards.
  • I added in nearly every sweet Cascade card, as I love the feeling of getting a small guaranteed effect with a large random effect.
  • A few more hybrid cards.  I’d like to include more.  I’m starting to understand that Gold can be very restrictive in limited.  I’m thinking of Gold cards as a prize for having that color combo.  In general, I expect to expand the hybrid options.

Matchmaking in Online Competitive Games

With Modern Warfare 3 out, I’m back into the crazy world of non-ranked matchmaking.  My match can involve a group of players with ten times my in-game experience.  Frustrating at first, playing against these skilled players eventually feels satisfying when I start to catch up.  I don’t think I’ve ever come in first place, but I have fun.  Beyond that, it’s hard to justify the lack of skill-based matchmaking.  I thought it might make sense to make a breakdown:

ELO-style Matching

In games like Starcraft 2 or WoW’s Arena, you have a rating that goes up and down depending on your wins and losses.  Beat a high rank opponent, gain a lot of points.  Beat a lower ranked opponent, gain few points.  Similar things when you lose.  I’ve played several games with this system, and most matches are tough but winnable.  It can be a excellent in one on one matches, but it can be a bit more frustrating to lose rating points because of an underperforming teammate.

Join-A-Server Matches

In most old school FPS games, you look at a list of player-run servers and pick one to join.  You could even save favorite servers and revisit them frequently.  Back in the day, I used to join the same Quake 3 server running a mod I liked.  I got to know the people there and had a good idea of where my skill was in relation to everyone else.  Apart from that, this is a complete random assortment with all the pitfalls therein.

Level-Based Matching

In unranked League of Legends matches or in several fighting games like Street Fighter 4, your account gains levels primarily just increases.  The more you play, the higher your level and the harder your matches will be.  If you play enough, you can eventually level yourself out of having a competitive chance.

Mode-Based Selection

The only selection involved in games like Modern Warfare comes from picking the game mode.  Hardcore modes will attract mostly high skilled players, whereas large team games invite newer players.  This does keep some of the more exotic modes from being reasonable for players.

Conclusion – Benefits of Non-Ranked Matching

The downside of skill-based matching is that it requires a large pool of players constantly starting new games.  If there are only 400 players playing a game and a match takes 10 players and lasts 20 minutes, it will take time to match enough players even ignoring skill parameters.  Adding in skill ranking and trying to match within certain constrains would add more delays.  For an action-packed game like MW3, maybe skipping matchmaking is actually the best idea.

Enjoying Magic: The Gathering on the Cheap

I enjoy playing Magic and reading about new sets, but I definitely don’t enjoy keeping boxes of cards around.  Buying lots of packs and trying to trade for cards also does not appeal to me.  While I enjoy drafting, it is pretty expensive if you don’t intend to keep the cards.  So, whenever I can, I look for other ways to enjoy the game.  Fortunately, there are plenty!

Cube Drafting

My new favorite thing is Cube Drafting.  Here is the brief explanation:

  • Pick 360 cards in roughly even colors/cost.
  • Shuffle all the cards together and split them into 15 card “packs”.
  • Divide the packs up among the players and draft!

I went through my friend Em’s huge collection and picked out about 500 cards as a first pass.  My friend Alex helped me trim it down to 360.  We played that Cube the other day and everyone had a pile of fun.  It’s all the fun of drafting, but since they’re all your chosen cards, they’re usually more powerful.  This does a few things to the draft process:

  • Late picks (picks 8 to 15) are exciting.  Plenty of good cards to go around means some sweet cards go late.
  • Diversity within builds.  I put a Knight theme into white, and two players had Knight-centric decks, but they were quite different.  Rather than the stress of drafting barely enough playables, you instead have many choices on which directions to go with your strategy.
  • The Cube fits your personal tastes.  I packed the Cube with “enters the battlefield” effects and some crazy Enchantments.
  • Lower pressure encourages new players.  I had a few friends that wouldn’t want to play a competitive store draft, but loved playing the Cube.
  • Breathes new life into old cards.  Em was surprised by all of his old cards coming back.  I think he really enjoyed seeing all of his collection being used.

If you were especially creative, you could build specialty Cubes.  What would an all-Red Cube look like?  An all spell Cube?  There are many crazy ways to go, since you have full control over the contents of the draft.

If you’d like to check out the Cube, you can see the listing here.  Also, check out my notes for future developments of this cube.

Duel Decks

I’ve written about Duel Decks before, but Wizards has expanded their strategy since then.  Nowadays, they release a variety of pre made themed decks.  In addition to the “Garruk vs Lilliana” style decks, they also release pre constructed decks for some other formats:

  • Planechase: Planechase is a cool format where there is a central “Plane” deck that modifies the game for everyone. Every turn, the Plane can change, which shifts the gameplay.  There are some other twists along the way, too.  You can buy Planechase decks that go with this format and tie into the Planes in some way.
  • Archenemy: This fun 3v1 format uses another specialty side-deck, but the decks that come bundled are also really fun!  I had an amazing first turn as the Archenemy that everyone still talks about.  Like with Planechase, you can use the Archenemy side-deck with normal cards, too.
  • Commander: More on this one later.

The idea here is that you can buy and play with pre made decks.  I’ve found that it can be fun to learn these decks and their match ups, even if they aren’t high end cards.

Duels of the Planeswalkers

The 2012 version of this PC/PS3/360 game enhances everything I said about the previous version.  More decks, better quality decks, and support for Archenemy.  All for $10, which is cheap as MtG can be!  There are some things I’ve especially enjoyed in this new version:

  • As mentioned, the decks are higher quality/power overall, which makes the games more tense.  It also makes unlocking cards more exciting, since the unlocked cards are exciting.
  • Archenemy makes this game a killer couch-coop game.  The Archenemy deck makes for a memorable villain and rallying for a win is super satisfying.  Playing Magic cooperatively also helps teach new players, which makes the game fun for everyone.
  • They support the game with new decks and cards.  This version has one expansion and one deck pack, both of which have been reasonably priced ($5 for 3 decks+features, $3 for 2 decks).  Like fighting games, more decks means exponentially more match-ups, which keeps the fun going for a long time.


EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander), AKA Commander is a special format within Magic.  The basic rules:

  • Pick a Commander.  It must be a legendary creature.  That creature sits outside your deck.  You may play him at any time.  If he dies, he leaves the game again but may be replayed for his cost, plus 2.
  • Build a 100 card Highlander deck using only the colors of the commander.  In Highlander, “there can be only one” of any non-basic land card.  This emphasizes searching out obscure cards.
  • 40 life, multiplayer format.
  • You can buy pre made Commander decks, and it seems like Wizards is committing to supporting Highlander into the future.

I don’t own any EDH decks myself, but wherever people are playing Magic, you can usually meet up with people that will lend you a deck.  Many players are enthusiastic to show you their creations and share them with you.

If you have any feedback, let me know!

A few more iPhone games

My iPhone gaming has slowed down over time, but I’ve still checked out a few new games in the last four or five months.

Bumpy Road – Control a cute car by moving the terrain around it.  I like the graphics more than the gameplay and didn’t end up playing this game for too long.  A novel take on platform jumping, but one that seemed unnatural to me.

Extreme Road Trip – A simple game about flipping your car as it drives to the right.  The precision involved in getting a perfect landing (instead of a decent one) is well rewarded with speed boosts that increase the action further.  Quick, addictive, and fun.

Groove Coaster – A one button version of Guitar Hero-style gameplay.  Cool graphical style and nice music.  Single tapping eventually felt boring to me and I was sometimes frustrated by parts that make the timing hard to understand.

Hard Lines – Tron/Snake with a lot of modes and a sense of humor.  This super-precision-based gameplay felt poorly suited for touch controls.  Maybe with more practice I would enjoy it, but I guess I didn’t want to play Snake that badly.

Sprinkle – Really cool water simulation tech helps make this a fun fire-fighting game.  Watching the water slosh around felt new and surprising.  Why don’t we see games with cool simulation on more powerful systems, like PC and consoles?

Feed Me Oil – Another game with cool liquid tech.  Here, you’re building Incredible Machine-style devices to transport goopy oil into the mouths of monsters.  I enjoyed this one less than Sprinkle, mostly because of the many puzzles that required hard-to-manage fans and spinning gusts of air.  With a better focus on easier-to-understand pieces, I’d like it more.

Sword and Sworcery – Adventure game with sick music and visuals.  I think it’d be a better fit on iPad, as the touch targets are a bit small on iPhone, but I’m still enjoying it anyhow.

Ramp Champ – Skee Ball with some video game twists.  Free and supported by In-App Purchases that unlock new tables to play.  I played it for a solid hour or two and enjoyed it for that time.

Strategery – Similar to a stripped-down Risk.  Fun and quick with an attractive interface.  Once you make it up to the highest level, though, games are more about who arbitrarily survives the first few rounds and less about strategy.

1-bit Ninja – One-button platform game.  At the time, I didn’t know this was a “thing” on iOS.  It turns out that this is a thing I don’t like.  Cute visuals, not a fan otherwise.

Super Stickman Golf – Exactly what I’d ask for with an iOS golf game.  Worms-style aiming, power ups, good courses, fun (local) multiplayer, and free.  I also like the sharp visuals, from the UI to the in-game graphics.  High marks for this one!

Scribblenauts Remix – A mini version of the creative Nintendo DS game.  The most fun part is imagining anything and having the game realize it.  Pregnant pirate ship?  Done.  Want to see whether a crocodile or a crocodile hunter wins?  Done.  So many funny ideas.

Async Corp. – A twist on Bejeweled with Japanese-style graphics.  Hard to recommend either way: it’s a puzzle game, so you’ll either get hooked or you won’t.  I didn’t.  The attempts at humor fell flat for me.

More of the Good and the Bad on Xbox

AC Brotherhood

Good – Best storytelling of any of the games so far, most varied mission design, brotherhood powers are so badass, still very fun to stab people.

Bad – Online way more chaotic than strategic, modern day characters as unlikeable as ever, overall gameplay starting to get tedious, brotherhood powers trivialize so many things.

Far Cry 2

Good – Great African rural setting, open world feels large and varied, malaria effects are a good attempt at adding random elements.

Bad – Insane amounts of travel time, nonexistent characterization and storytelling, uninteresting scenario design typical to open-world games.


Good – Zelda-style gameplay without the slow first several hours, brings the Warhammer aesthetic to life with a new world, competent and consistent gameplay.

Bad – No good puzzles, combat doesn’t have much new or fresh, no character development, demons vs angels isn’t as badass as it should be.

Mass Effect 2

Good – Better combat, better acting, better characters, better graphics, first 90% of the game is pitch perfect.

Bad – Storytelling fails when trying to get to the highest stakes, last boss is weird and lacks personal drama, the survival of your crew is way too easy to guarantee, seeing all the side missions guarantees the most drama-free ending.

Splinter Cell Conviction

Good – Stripped down main character, stealth aspects aren’t the typical pass/fail frustration for much of the genre, innovative “Mark and Execute” gameplay that makes you feel like an assassin stalking your targets.

Bad – Foes eventually get so strong that all the cool stuff goes out the window, hard to follow the storyline.

Fable 3

Good – Large world full of humor and variety, fun RPG action, unusually well implemented online features.

Bad – Storyline feels forced and unrelated to the exploration, final act has really weird pacing that enters point-of-no-return with no warning, never challenging except when really cheap and frustrating.

Alan Wake

Good – Great cutscenes, cool new light-based fighting elements, awesome trees.

Bad – Combat drags on really badly as story progresses, ending is way too meta and lacking in drama.

Portal 2

Good – More Portal!  Both single player and co-op have great variety and humor, excellent expansion of the setting, perfect ending.

Bad – Nothing in particular, but lacks the shocks of the original.

LA Noire

Good – Unbelievably good facial animation that actually serves as the basis of the gameplay, well-executed setting, satisfying plot that starts with a slow burn, some of the story turns are well integrated into game mechanics, decent combat and action.

Bad – The fundamental system for judging truth/doubt/lie with witnesses is only barely good enough due to unclear separation of doubt and lie.

Mortal Kombat

Good – Surprisingly excellent story mode full of great cutscenes and big surprises for fans of the series, basic gameplay is as good as MK’s ever been, impressively disgusting fatalities.

Bad – Fighting games are still full of weird gameplay that make it poorly suited for casual players.

Shadows of the Damned

Good – Hot start with funny dialog and cool characters, gameplay is basically RE4 which isn’t bad.

Bad – Side modes are all bad, love interest character is awful, story evaporates halfway in, gameplay feels like a bad slog once dialog runs out.


Good – Huge explosions, sliding around is fun, takes place in real time, decent shooting.

Bad – Especially short, obvious plot twists, boss battles look great but aren’t fun.

Alice: Madness Returns

Good – Cool setting with fun cutscenes inside and outside Alice’s mind, solid combat, crazy looking worlds, great setup for unraveling Alice’s crazy memories.

Bad – Plot and gameplay both give out about halfway in, ending could have been more insane.


Good – Skillshot system properly awards doing insane feats, crazy guns, some really ludicrous lines.

Bad – Yet another FPS.

Deux Ex: Human Revolution

Good – Solid stealth action merged with useful RPG elements, can approach areas in many different ways, good rewards for playing well, cool dialog system, great setting, nice variety between open city zones and tighter mission areas.

Bad – Trial and error gameplay endemic to stealth-based games, hacking mini game is too random to be truly great, really lame boss fights that penalize stealth-based characters, especially bad final boss, really bad endings.


Good – Mostly just the rad ending, great voice acting.

Bad – Completely by-the-numbers Prince of Persia gameplay ripoff, all the enemies are personality-free robots, chemistry between the cast is mixed quality, no cool powers to learn or weapons to find, throwaway RPG elements, hoverboard sequences are punishing.


Podcasts are a great way to gain understanding directly from people who work in the industry.  My favorite podcasts are from 5by5. My breakdown of the shows:

Back to Work – Merlin is crazy if you haven’t heard/read him before, but I definitely love every minute of it. Certainly a good place to hear the affirmation that it doesn’t count until you ship. The show is also super meta, which is definitely delightful to me as I love seeing how things work and seeing how things can be deconstructed.

Talk Show – as much as I like Gruber, I don’t really enjoy this show. Gruber comes off disinterested and grumpy compared to his more intellectual and thorough blog. I wonder if most nerds are really like that.

Build and Analyze – Marco has a lot to say and definitely carries that young tech entrepreneur feeling. The show gives a strong idea of his mindset, especially on more recent episodes where he talks about building a small content management system for his blog.

The Pipeline – Interviews aplenty. I high quality guests with a good hit rate and usually Dan keeps the questions coming. I have enjoyed listening to the back episodes of this show, especially the ones where he interviews someone who later becomes a cohost on other shows.

The Big Web Show – Generally the topics here are good and the guests are important, but sometimes the show sometimes slows to a crawl. Zeldman isn’t as good as Dan at keeping guests on topic. Sometimes Zeldman’s questions actually lead the guest into bigger tangents.

Critical Path – An amazingly insightful show about the mobile phone industry.  Super informative and educational, but seems to come out rarely.  I’d love more!

Hypercritical – Definitely my favorite show and the one most relevant to me. I read Siracusa’s giant OSX reviews before I even had a Mac and I appreciate his super thorough style. I’m hoping he can keep up the momentum. The recent programming episodes have given me hope.


Dragon Age 2 Ending

(Spoilers, certainly)

I enjoyed much of DA2 but a good portion of the ending sequence played the wrong way for me.  I made some notes to try to figure out why it didn’t quite satisfy.

  • Anders didn’t succumb enough to Justice. He just sorta blows things up but seems otherwise pretty mellow about it afterward. He doesn’t go through a character arc, unlike some of the other party members. He’s the same character at the beginning and the end. Maybe if I had played Awakening he would have made more sense. I’d like him to actually get tense and angry and more badass instead of just staying the same Anders afterward.
  • Orsino is a weak character with few traits. He should be more brainy, more calculating, so that it’s even remotely believable that he could be a bad guy. Meredith is way more evil than him and it hurts the struggle. It would also help if there was some sort of reasoning why he turns into a demon and then attacks the players instead of Meredith.  That, or play him as very feeble and passive-aggressive, so when he turns on everyone it makes more sense.
  • The Circle also has a weak portrayal once you get inside. A half dozen mages doing the “idle conversation” emote doesn’t seem convincing enough. The circle in Origins was better delivered. Perhaps a quest or two could have traveled into the circle during the game. Maybe this is better explored if you’re a mage character.
  • I wish there was some sort of basis to why Meredith could summon giant clockwork monsters. Is lyrium mean to grant immense magical power to summon golems? I understand it’s the end of a videogame and it’s necessary to provide giant bosses. Fighting Meredith as she slows down and petrifies would have also been awesome.
  • It was probably a time crunch thing, but the city does not change over the course of 6 years and nor do the residents. Nobody seems to react to the battle with the Qunari besides your party members. Shouldn’t something have moved in there?