All posts by Sean Boyce

Pop-Dev | D&D – What’s It to You?

So, I have been running a Dungeons & Dragons game for the better part of three years now. This is coming up on the longest running game I’ve ever maintained, and this one is happening entirely digitally, through the mystical magics of Roll 20; by my measure, among the finest free virtual tabletop (VTT) systems available. I’ve had a number of conversations with my players various and sundry about what makes our game fun, what they want more of, that sort of thing, and I’ll get to all of that. But being years into the process of running a 5th Edition D&D game, I have a few observations, and the more I think about it and try to articulate it, the more it becomes obvious that they jump the shark a little bit from a single blog post. So I’m going to spend a few weeks, maybe months, posting a series of thoughts – kind of in an “article” format – under the general purview of Dungeons & Dragons. To that end, here’s a quick primer:

With the 5th Edition of D&D, the system itself is the most inclusive it has ever been. It’s not just from the fact that they specifically call out the malleability of constructs like gender or “race” in the sense that we use it in the mundane world (“races” in D&D are actually better named “species”, but that carries a kind of unfortunate Darwinian implication); this version of D&D goes for speed and simplicity in all things. It does its best job to obliterate the barriers to entry. The two core books are chock-a-block full of general guidelines to keep your game fun and up-tempo, and they go to great pains to point out that, as we sometimes say in the software business, Your Mileage May Vary. Every game and group of D&D and its players are so radically different that the elegance of the system is in how easily it supports such a broad array of understandings.

I think this owes to the incredibly profundity for talent they have over there at Wizards, from their intrepid leaders like Jeremy Crawford and Dungeon Master to the Stars Chris Perkins to newly adorned and enshrined in fandom forever as baby-wizard-no-more Kate Welchhhhh (note to editor: check how many h’s she uses?); their cadre of colorful characters have convened unto us a truly commendable game. And I think it deserves noting.

That said!

I do find that there are some of the crunchy bits that I could sink my teeth into better; several of the classes have some awkward progression, some of them lack what I would call substantive definitions of character, but these are all things you can fix pretty easily – the system has installed amazing levers for homebrewing and is really clear and cogent with respect to how that’s done. I think there are a few key concepts in 4th Edition that are kind of missing from 5th edition. I’ll probably talk about both of these things at some point in the future. I don’t know, there’s something about finding the parts I like of both that is intriguing to me.

There’s also something to be said about the Encounter design element and the overall feel of different encounters in the game system. I’ll probably talk about that as well.

But I guess, it’s best for me to start with my concept of what Dungeons & Dragons really is, or functions as. For me,  the core concept of Dungeons & Dragons is that a group of friends sit around and build a shared, cooperative narrative experience with each other. The goal of the game is to have fun and tell a cool story. What that means for one group is totally different to another group, and that’s one of the things that makes it great. The rules of the game’s system are basically there to help you simulate an alternate reality – an entire universe, really, a paracosm – where high fantastical adventure is not only possible but the norm. The rules then, build systems out of core assumptions about what you’ll be doing while experiencing high fantastical adventure, and they seek to provide a framework for adjudicating and resolving conflicts (which I think of as “plot.”). Some players in the group take on the role of adventurers – heroes or people at any rate called to adventure and discover more about themselves and the world around them. Typically, at least one player in the group takes on the role of Dungeon Master or DM. The job of the DM is different in every group, which I’ll talk about a lot, probably. For me, I see the players as the Ensemble Cast of leading actors playing various parts in a script that’s semi-improvised. My job, as the DM, is to provide a voice and thought process to all the supporting cast, even if I didn’t write the support cast of characters, including the villains and allies, plus provide the set pieces to play in. Last, I see the role of the DM as something like a stage manager/editor/director. They don’t necessarily control where the stories of the individual characters are going, but they do have a general sense of what scene is next and when the lights dim, whether a given moment matters for the long arc of the story, etc.

What your specific game is depends entirely on what your group wants, and I think of this as the social contract created at what lots of folks call “Session 0.” In such a session, you discover the level of interest players have in different story paths and the questions that they’re trying to explore in their characters’ stories. That sounds highfalutin, like everyone has to have this deeply erudite story that they’re telling, but a person who simply wants to make the most amazing meals in the world and become the best chef of all time can still be called to adventure. Or you can have some other much more ridiculous premise for a character; I don’t care. But at the core of every character called to adventure are questions that need answering.

I am also of the opinion that this should be iterated upon. For me, in irregular intervals, I make it a point to check in with my players to learn what they like, what they don’t like, what they’d like to do more of, what they’re excited about, what they’re dreading. That’s because I very much see the role of the Dungeon Master not just as the director or editor or producer of the story, but I see them as the fundamental designers of the game.

Wait a damn minute, Boyce, you say with indignant anger, you just talked all about a bunch of nerds you admire who are the designers of this game, and now you’re telling me that you’re a designer of this game too? So you’re impressed with yourself, narcissist?

Kind of! But, no. What I mean is that, in my view, they built an amazing game system, and then they have released several game modules to use with that system which are also incredible. Plus, they gave me all the tools so that my players and I make our own game. 

That’s D&D to me. It’s what you make of it, but I love finding the spots in the system where they imply and cajole and infer. I like pushing the levers up and down and seeing what breaks. I like understanding the choices that they made when they built this system and understanding what breaking with those choices means not just for me as a Dungeon Master but for my players as Adventurers.

What’s it to you? Maybe for you, D&D is just a long, fun, comedic improv session where you all say goofy things while rolling dice. Maybe for you, D&D is a deeply mechanical game of stat tracking and dice rolling (mine is still very much that). The actual game that I’m playing is figuring out how to tease stories out of my players. The game that the players are playing is one I have meticulously designed using the system and the rules. The end goal is that we create an amazing, shared narrative in a cooperative space.

But I guess I generally think that, if you’re having a good time with a group of friends, you’re “winning.” But no one else plays my specific game of D&D and I don’t play anyone else’s; and that’s what makes it really amazing. There are very few games that are so well thought out as to make that grand ambition a statement of fact.

In the coming weeks (months?), I’ll talk more about my specific game. Maybe you’ll like some of it; maybe you’ll hate it. However you feel about it, it’s absolutely your right to feel that, and I sincerely welcome constructive criticism.

First up is probably how I think of Adventures and Encounters. Then we’ll talk about homebrewing, mixing in elements of past editions (specifically the much-maligned 4th Edition), and I’ll probably start posting campaign diaries, and entrances in my old “In Exmplar” series, except specifically highlighting the interesting differences that exist across the spectrum of “real play” D&D stories/podcasts/comics/shows.

Buckle up, nerds.

Halflings & Giants Variants

Jerry Holkins (Jereford K. Holkrim, Tycho Brahe, Ominifous Haerwardran, of and fame) posted a pretty good dice game for use in his ongoing Twitch-streamed D&D Game Acquisitions Inc.: The “C”-Team (I am Proficient in Punctuation checks, and that bit right there gave me disadvantage. Nerds.)

I liked it a lot. My brains began to twist and crackle, as they do.

Then this statement by Amy T. Falcone of Strip Search and Acq Inc. fame suggested a costume themed party aligning with the circumstances in which they played this fictional dice game, a kind of blind push-your-luck betting game called Halflings & Giants.

My first thought was “Please let it be at PAX East.” My second thought was – why wait for Halloween? Make it a Child’s Play Charity event – costumes required with a door price donation. I suggested as much.

And then my shit started to crank at a frequency that may have yielded unsavory results. I thought, “Oh, what if there were a way to include, as the centerpiece, a celebrity charity poker tournament, but playing Halflings & Giants?!”

And then I thought, “Well, it’s not great for Tournament play…”

The basic rules are that one player plays as the Halflings, rolling 2d6. The other player plays as the Giant, Rolling 1d10, with agreed upon stakes. The Giant sets the “Knee” (or target number) by rolling the d10. Any roll of 2-10 is a valid target number and play continues. A roll of a 1 is called a “Kick” and the Halflings represented by the d6s are “Kicked” by the Giant and that player loses.

Assuming a Knee of 2-10, the Halfling player then rolls 2d6, hoping to get a total on two dice greater than or equal to the Knee, but less than an 11 or 12, which represents the gaping Maw of the Giant. Rolling an 11 or 12 results in being Eaten, and the Halflings lose.

Rolling double 1s (snake eyes, in traditional parlance) summons a snake that scares the Giant away, and the game is pushed – bets stand, and the game starts again.  Rolling any number below the Knee causes the Halflings to be kicked and the Giant wins. Rolling any number above the Knee causes the Giant to topple and the Halflings win.

Rolling doubles of any number that isn’t 1 allows you to Split the roll. Choose one of the dice to remain as that value and roll 2d6 again. Remember, your goal is to exceed the target number and not reach the Maw. So if the Knee is a 4 and you roll double 2s, you win, no need to split.

The Giant represents the “House” and pays more to the Halflings if the Knee is higher. A knee of 2-3 pays 1:1. A knee of 4-6 pays 2:1. A knee of 7-9 pays 3:1. A knee of 10 pays 5:1.

This piece isn’t often used in friendly games but reflects the difficulty. The push your luck piece comes when rolling doubles – if you roll double 2s and the Knee is 8, you need to keep a 2 and roll two more dice, hoping the value of this roll does not exceed 9 (Maw value – 2 for the value you initially rolled). If you rolled double 2s again, somehow, you would be at a total of 6 and need to split again, now shooting for your next two dice to yield less than 7 total. If you succeed, that’s Legendary as hell.

Then I said, “But there may be a way to fix it into a thing that’s tournament-ready. And if I haven’t seen it on the internet yet, then I’ll give it a shot, why not.”

This inspired me to come up with a way that this game could be played by multiple people against one another and the house. Below is “Fearless Rogues Hold ‘Em”, which is a draw-poker inspired variant with a touch of inverse Liar’s Dice in there. If you don’t know what Liar’s Dice is, it’s probably one of the oldest games in the world. The biggest change in the rules is that you’re not fixed to 2 halflings per player, and a player isn’t out until they’re out of money or they’re out of halflings. When it’s down to House vs 1 Player, it’s back to normal Halflings vs. Giants rules, but the Player may have gained significant advantages and built a large pot by the time she or he gets there.

I’ve mostly done some very simply maths in here; some of it’s bad and some of it needs to be fixed. My guess is messing with the Maw target isn’t going to work tons and there will be more ‘abusive’ games where the new splitting mechanic can make a game harder and harder to win. This game can also just be played as Halflings & Giants: Rogues Hold ‘Em by removing the Fearless rule that’s mentioned in the text; I think that would likely make for a longer, more casual game.

The house does collect the pot if all Halflings are Kicked.

*** EDIT: ***

I’ve updated the betting rules and clarified the options for Fleeing (which is what I’m calling folding). Check out Jerry’s excellent and much simpler original dice game over at; you can actually play the game right in the chat.


Fearless Rogues Hold ‘Em

Players: 1 Giant, 2-6* Halflings

Each Halfling has 2 dice.

The House rolls Giant plus 1 / 2 / 3 d6s in individual cups based on number of players in the game. (1 cup for 1 or 2 players, 2 cups for 3 or 4 players, 3 cups for 5 or 6 players).

While there are more than 2 players, the Maw is 10 through 12 as opposed to just 11 & 12.


Each player’s cup starts at 2d6.


The house rolls the Giant and places it on the table, covered with a cup. The house then rolls each cup with 2d6 in it, presenting the die whose value is nearest the Giant (e.g. if the giant rolls a 2, and a Party roll produces a 5 and a 6, the House plays the 5 to the Party. If the Giant rolls a 3 and the Party roll produces 2 and 6, the 2 is presented). This is public information on the table. These dice compose the Party.



Play proceeds from the House’s left to right. Each player has the chance to roll their dice secretly and decide whether to Flee, Trip (make a play for the Knee) or draw from the Party and then choose to Trip or, if it’s available, Split. If they choose to draw from the Party, they draw one of the party dice from the table and discard one of their dice such that they have a hand of two dice. The house then plays the remaining party die from that cup to the table. In a Fearless game, only the first player may choose to Flee as opposed to Splitting or Tripping after Drawing; otherwise, each player declares if they Flee or Trip with their current hand. If Fleeing, they scoop their dice into the cup and place it right-side up. When a player Flees, their ante is forfeited, but they cannot be Kicked or Consumed.


If a player has rolled a hand that includes a double (any two dice of the same value), they can choose to Split. Instead of the normal rules for Splitting, the player gains an additional die into their cup and “folds,” sacrificing their ante and removing themselves from play this round.


After all players have had a chance to play, the table may engage in an optional betting round. See the section below called “Liars and Thieves” for some popular betting options.


Once the play and optional betting phases are complete, the House reveals the Giant and compares to each of the players’ hands in the order they were declared, proceeding to the House’s right. If the Giant is a Kick, the first player to play a Trip loses a die and all subsequent players Flee. Each player who plays a Trip compares their score to the Giant’s result; a roll equal to or higher than the Knee results in a victory. A roll below the knew results in a kick, causing that player to lose a die from their cup.


If any player rolls the Maw, they are Consumed and lose both dice from their hand and forfeit their bet. If any player rolls the Snake, all players to their left Flee, and a new round begins.


A player that Flees can neither be Kicked, consumed by the Maw, or make a bet in the betting round.


The player that is closest to the Knee wins the round, but pots are often split among all players that win. If there is a tie, the pot splits.


At the end of the round, each player antes up with a buy-in. The buy-in is a fixed amount per Halfling die in your cup. If you do not have sufficient money to ante-up with your deck of dice, you are out of the game. If you do not have any dice, you are out of the game. The House matches the buy-in.


In subsequent rounds, the starting player moves by one to the right. If a player received additional dice via Split, they can roll those dice in their cups as well, but they can only ever choose to play two of the dice they roll to their hands. A player can never have more than 2 dice in their playing hand at any given time. If a player Draws from the Party while in possession of only one die in their hand, they need not discard that die.


Play continues until all Halfling players but one are eliminated. They then play a standard round of Halflings vs. Giants for the entirety of the pot, with standard stakes. The House may optionally forfeit if the stakes are unmanageable.



Thieves and Liars

After each player has had an opportunity to declare their play, a  betting round may be instituted. This is an optional round of betting that can raise the stakes and alter the strategy of the game, but is often omitted in friendly games. There are two common forms of betting, often referred to as the “Thieves and Liars” methods, described below. The Circuit of Thieves presumes that every player believes they have the best hand or purports to believe that to damage another players’ pot. The Liars’ Den emulates parts of the popular pirate game “Liars’ Dice,” with slightly altered rules.



The Circuit of Thieves

The most common form of betting is the Circuit of Thieves, which is a simple gamble on a win – you declare an amount of money that you believe your hand to be worth, hoping that you win the round. Once you place your bet, the next player to bet cannot bet lower than that amount. If they lack sufficient funds, they can go “All-In” to call your bet or choose to change their play to a Flee (if they had previously Fled or Split, they do not bet in the betting round, as they are out of this round of play). Fleeing at this point sacrifices their play but does not require them to match the standing bet. Betting can continue in this manner around the table until all of the players have “called” the bet, meaning they have each matched the standing bet or have gone all-in.


In the Circuit of Thieves, betting is done in reverse order from the play phase, so that the last player to choose their play (Trip, Split, or Flee) is the first player to bet, proceeding to that player’s left (House’s right).


The Liars’ Den

In this betting variant, each player makes a proposition in the betting round regarding the number and value of dice currently in play. For example, the first player to bet might bet on “Four 2s.” Their guess is that, including the Party dice, the Trips on the table contain at least Four 2s. The next bettor may now bet that there are Five or more 2s, or that there are Four or more 3s – this is called a raise. They have two other bet options: Snake or Tumble. When calling the Snake, you make the bet that a player on the table has rolled a Snake. If no Snake appears, you are Consumed, as though you had rolled in the Maw. If a Snake does appear, you and any other player that bets on the Snake split the pot instead of pushing the round. Any bettor that calls a Tumble believes that the house has rolled a Kick and splits the pot for the round. Once all bettors have declared, play proceeds as normal – the player that wins the round bets first next round. Whenever a round ends without a winner or during the first round of play, the first bet goes to the last player to have declared their play.


Thought Dump | League of Legends Design Thoughts I

So, this is probably going to be the first of these, and there may be several. The reality is that this won’t mean a lot to most people who come to my blog, but it is a bunch of ideas. A few important things to note, these thoughts assume a basic familiarity with League of Legends and are back-dated to earlier states of the game. For the purposes of my sharing this with the world, I’m going to be trying to include the patch number of the game when I wrote this stuff down. A lot of things, systemically, have changed since some of these ideas were written down and I will try to clarify those where I can. I’m going oldest to newest, so that should be interesting. The vast majority of these are re-designs of existing champions with an eye toward two things: enhancing the thematic expression of a character and improving what Riot calls the character’s effect on “game health,” which based on their design ideology aims for a few things in a modern sense but at the time of writing might have meant different things.

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Pop-Dev | Overwatch: The Good, the Bad, the Watch

A couple of things up front:

Overwatch is great.

It’s not just that’s it’s:

  1. Fun
  2. Easy to start, hard to master
  3. Gorgeous
  4. Got incredibly high production values

It’s that it’s all of those things combined and rolled into a design philosophy that hasn’t been executed to this level of complexity in a new way in almost a decade. That doesn’t sound like much time, particular for other entertainment mediums, but five generations of computer hardware have emerged and been supplanted by faster, smarter systems in that time. A full 12 Call of Duty games have released in the intervening time, and at least that many spinoffs from that genre. 10 years is a long time in a medium that’s only existed in any real sense for 40 years.



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Pop-Dev – Pairs

For example, this ordinary reference Pear. Pair. Pears. DJAGETIT?!

When I started work at the Pew Charitable Trusts back in September, I was instantly concerned that I was entering a world of Serious People™ that do Serious Work™. It’s true that everyone there does Serious Work™ and they’re quite serious about it, but I think I was afraid of entering this glass chapel of high thought and being relegated to becoming a severe person. By the end of the first day, any such misapprehension had dissipated entirely, and by the third day I had made good acquaintance of a guy there called Zhalgas. He prefers Zee for a lot of reasons, so we’ll call him that for our purposes. Zee is another programmer and all around cool guy. His interests are wide-ranging and eclectic, but we share many, including, in all its forms sundry and less so, games.

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Video Game Retrospective

So, I’m gearing up to apply to a couple writer gigs in the game industry, because it’s one of those things you just have to try, and I find myself curious about the requirements of some of these positions. One that I looked at recently required a list of games played in the last 6 months (I limited it to video and computer games, because, yeesh, it’s already way too long) as well as a top-10 list of all time. I was not content to just do a top 10, because I wanted to really think about it.

So I did. And now, dear reader, you get to see my thoughts on it. I’m curious if anyone else who still plays games has sat down and thought about this, but now that I have, I found it really interesting and valuable. So take a minute and give it a shot. You might be terribly amused by what you find.

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