The Fodders: Epic Gaming of the Nameless

I’ve always preferred one-shots (or two-shots) for certain types of games, like Cthulhu or Little Fears. And I’ve always preferred campaigns — the longer the better — for others, like D&D, L5R, and World of Darkness. But one of my fondest gaming memories was something in between: an epic weekend-long Pathfinder game.

HenchmanThe game was the perfect vehicle for the creative GMing genius of longtime friend and epic gamemaster Dan. In the game, we all played members of a special, and extremely large, extended family known as the Fodders. The Fodders had many strict traditions that governed their way of life.

The critical element was this: none of them had a name. Acquiring a name was the greatest ambition of every Fodder, and those with names were looked upon with reverence — they were like demi-gods, on a different level from mere mortals.

The very strict traditions of the Fodder clan stated that:

  • You cannot name yourself, or anyone else. Only one of the Named can give you a name.
  • You cannot ask for a name, nor in any way hint to the Named that you want a name.
  • To gain a name, you must chose a Named to serve. If you serve well and faithfully and perform heroic deeds, the Named might judge you worthy of a name yourself
  • You do not speak to a Named unless spoken to, or in the course of obeying orders
  • You must obey the orders of the Named you serve

And so we merry group of young Fodders, under the careful direction of the clan elder, the Godfodder, set out into the world to serve the Named and try to distinguish ourselves enough to earn a name ourselves.

We were, of course, henchmen and torchbearers serving the heroes that would normally be the player characters in a campaign. And there was an epic campaign happening — good vs evil and the world at stake. But we were only tangentially aware that these epic happenings were occurring. We were busy carrying torches into dungeons so the Named could see and fight the legendary foes; we were staying up on guard duty (or trying to stay awake) and keeping watch; we were on more than one occasion investigating strange corridors where the Named suspected there might be a trap and determined it was best if we went in first.

We died a lot.

Then made a new nameless Fodder, on the same quest as all Fodders, and rejoined the fight.

Nodwick #1
From Nodwick #1

We set off with the idea that we had to distinguish ourselves in heroic acts to gain a name. But when the first Fodder was finally named by the Named, it wasn’t for something heroic. I don’t remember what it actually was — but it was along the lines of a Fodder who was sick from eating poison (food taster for the Named) and had horrible runs. Then that Fodder was investigating a corridor for traps, failed a Con check and suffered explosive diarrhea. The Named they started calling him Sir Crapsalot.

It didn’t matter how insulting the name was — it was a Name. In the alternate reality where the campaign was about the heroes — the Named — the random NPC crapping himself in the dungeon was hilarious and suddenly that NPC had a nickname, which made him memorable. As that game continued the players would ask the DM about Sir Crapsalot and he would be more and more a part of the story. No longer a nameless henchmen; suddenly a character the players cared about.

As you can imagine, the weekend-long game was hilarious. It was filled with ridiculous and callous requests from the Named, and crazy efforts on the part of the Fodders to distinguish themselves (particularly once we realized doing something funny could earn you a name). There were many ridiculous and hilariously inevitable deaths.

But it was also kind of poignant.

It was the story of a bunch of nobodies who just wanted to be a part of the story They were on the outside looking in and wanted more than anything to be on the inside, to make a difference, to be remembered when we were gone. To have a Name.

In the end we all got names, became level 1 characters and got to participate in the epic story and battle the forces of evil. I honestly don’t remember if we won, or if we all died in the final battle. I remember that final battle was grim and things weren’t looking good, but I don’t actually remember the outcome. But then, it doesn’t really matter if we won or died — because either way, we had names, and what we did made a difference in the world. We became part of the story.

I don’t know if there’s any game I’ve played that bettered captured all the great things about gaming: great fun, huge laughs, friends having a good time together — but also at the same time an underlying story with a deeper message. A story that sticks with you years later, that you think about now and again while riding the train, or nodding off to sleep at night. A story that makes you think about gaming, and your friends — and makes you long to game with them all again.

Home: the Secret to Better D&D Campaigns

At a high level, many D&D campaigns tend to take after the Lord of the Rings, or the Dragonlance Chronicles, or countless other high fantasy sagas. They are at their heart a fellowship of travelers and heroes, wandering the land fighting a great evil, or righting many smaller wrongs.

The characters in these games usually have some kind of back story about where they came from, and perhaps they even have a theoretical family at some nameless village or forest. But the group really has no home: they are just wanderers. From city to city, from dungeon to necropolis, they stay at inns and camps at the side of the forest trail.

As a result it’s incredibly hard to get the players to really care about any place or anyone other than their own group. Perhaps the players come to a village where children were abducted in the middle of the night, or the farmers are being killed by a strange monster — the players recognize it as a plot hook and something they should fight to make right, but they don’t really care about farmer Jim or Jilly the baker’s missing children. And of course they don’t: they just heard about these people for the first time that night.

We care about people that we know, that we see again and again over time, who we’ve interacted with countless times. This, I think, is the secret to massively improving your D&D campaign.

Create a Home

Give your players a home, a base of operations. Rather than endlessly wandering the world, give them a manor or inn that they work out of. It could be a castle tower or dilapidated shack in a small village, as long as it’s someplace with some semblance of civilization. You need a world of people that they interact with regularly to really give the sense of home, as well as a place that is theirs.

The characters can slowly get to know their neighbors between adventures, and can come to feel a sense of ownership over their home.

I think this is probably best explained by example:

A Campaign with a Home

In my most recent Pathfinder campaign the characters were based out of a large city. After their first couple nights and doing some deeds that got the attention of people in the city, they had to decide where they were going to live in the city. The inns of the city actively courted bands of adventurers, because having them around the taproom was good for business, so the characters got to go to all the major inns in the city that didn’t already have an adventuring group stationed there and try to make the best deal — free rooms were a given, but free food, drink, number and size of rooms, and how often the characters had to be around were all negotiated.

Perhaps Mama Butters’ Kitchen & Respite offered the best food and as much free food as the characters could want, in addition to rooms; but everything was halfling sized and it didn’t lend a lot to a fiercesome reputation. Fat Wot’s was huge and the characters could get a whole wing to themselves since Wot built far too large, but the place was decrepit and the food was terrible as Wot struggled to get by. Perhaps one innkeeper would give them a cut of the taproom profits for any night they stayed in and told stories; perhaps another had a brother who was an armorer and would give the characters a discount. Each inn had different advantages and disadvantages, and the characters could (and did) try to wheedle and fast talk their way into better deals for themselves.

Fantasy InnArt by Alfren Khamidulin

Now settled in the inn of their choice, between each adventure the character’s came back and hung out with the same NPCs each time: the owner, the manager, the cook, the barmaids, the regulars, the rival adventuring bands vying for the best reputation. They got to really know all these NPCs, to like them and hate them. They came to expect improvements to the establishment when they were gone for a while, and actively invested in the reputation and even improves to “their” inn.

Now imagine the difference in a simple plot hook: they discover that their favorite barmaid was kidnapped, or perhaps killed by orcs. This isn’t just a random NPC anymore. They know that character, they heard stories about her kids and know that her sister was learning to be a cook. They saw her every time they came back and fended off drunken customers on her behalf. Now it’s more than a plot hook — the players are furious, they are swearing bloody vengeance.

Suddenly it matters in way that is about more than gold and experience points.

A Home Makes Players Care More

So that’s my argument and my best advice to make your next D&D campaign ten times better, and to make your players more attached to the game. Give them a home and carve out a couple hours of game time every time they return to let them interact with the characters in that home.

You can create plot hooks around their home, and the players will be more engaged in the game overall. Give them a chance to care about the NPCs and in the end that home will give them something to fight for.

Something Telling about D&D Next

Like much of the active D&D gaming world, I signed up for the 5th edition playtest and downloaded the files eagerly and with some trepidation. After going over the files I was intrigued and talked to the gaming group about setting up a playtest. I figured it was good timing since our current Pathfinder campaign was just wrapping up.

The conversation was short. Not a single player had any interest in playing 5th edition — they were happy with Pathfinder and would rather start a new Pathfinder game. They didn’t want to devote a single night to this D&D Next thing, they just wanted to keep playing the game they loved playing.

And of course this is the problem with new editions in general — when you have players that are happy with their current edition, they don’t have any motivation to switch to something new — what they got now is working for them. Normally the solution is simple: when you launch a new edition of a RPG you quit printing the previous edition and they have no choice. But for 5th edition there is another choice, there’s Pathfinder, and for my gaming group at the very least it’s going to take a lot to get them to even try the game.

Google Statistics on the Edition Wars: D&D & Pathfinder

With the 5th edition D&D Next playtest going on, the D&D Edition Wars are about to have yet another competitor in the mix. In the recent past it’s been reported that Pathfinder is outselling D&D in the hobby market, and possibly other channels as well. But in the fight for sales the only competition Pathfinder has is 4e; however, D&D 3.5 remains beloved in the hearts of a huge number of gamers. We thought it would be interesting to try to dig up some statistics on the popularity of all editions of Dungeons and Dragons — and Pathfinder — rather than just the ones that are in print.

Enter Google.

Google is the largest search engine by a huge margin. With a 70% market share in the US and far more in Europe, Google serves over a billion searches a day. As a result taking a look at what people are searching for on Google gives us a nice qualitative glimpse of the interest level in different D&D editions, and Pathfinder. Happily, Google provides some tools to let us see a little bit of the data of what is being searched.

Monthly D&D / Pathfinder Search Statistics

Here we’re looking at the average monthly searches made on Google, in the English language, for search phrases. These statistics are a really good way of comparing the search popularity of different phrases and giving a general feel for how many people are interested in each edition war contender.

D&D editions monthly searches on Google

Here we’re comparing the different editions of D&D. For the data on this chart we’re looking at all the most common variations of how people search for each edition. So for for 4th edition we’re looking at phrases like: D&D 4th, D&D 4, D&D 4e, D&D Fourth, Dungeons and Dragons 4/4th/4e/fourth, DnD 4/4th/4e/fourth, etc. 5th Edition includes D&D Next variations.

This chart makes it pretty obvious that among the D&D editions, 3.5 is the one that currently holds the interest of most gamers. It’s possible, however, that 3.5 gets an unfair boost because it’s no longer in print and thus more people are seeking 3.5 info online, while the 4e fans can just buy the latest books. To be sure, every edition other than 4th gets the same boost, and I think it’s particularly interesting the the new D&D playtest hasn’t attracted more active interest than it has. Unfortunately we can’t use this data to compare the editions to Pathfinder. The big issue here is that there’s a SUV called Pathfinder that confuses the data, as well as the fact that there’s significant searches for “D&D Pathfinder” making some chunk of the Pathfinder searches also register as D&D.

One way to try to compare average monthly search volume between D&D and Pathfinder is to look at some of the most popular more specific searches that would not include any vehicle searches.

D&D vs Pathfinder monthly searches

Here we’re looking at some of the specific top searches for both D&D and Pathfinder. We can see that at best, in searches for D&D PDF vs Pathfinder PDF that Pathfinder has less than half of the monthly search volume as Dungeons and Dragons. Of course this is comparing Pathfinder against all of D&D combined, not just one edition. And as we saw in the previous statistics, the out of print 3.5 is responsible for the majority of D&D-related searches.

In the scope of the Edition Wars what we really want to know is not how Pathfinder stands up to all the D&D editions combined, but rather which of all of the D&D editions, or Pathfinder, is the most popular. To get statistics on this from Google, we need to use a different tool.

D&D Editions vs Pathfinder Trends

Here we’re going to look at the search trends over time, dating back to 2004 (the earliest time Google has data for this tool). The search data here is normalized so it’s not associated with any specific quantity of searches, but instead lets you see the comparative search volumes over time. The great thing about this tool is that we can restrict it just to searches within the roleplaying game category, so our Pathfinder searches are all RPG searches.

D&D editions vs pathfinder search trend

This, I think, is the most interesting piece of data from the Google perspective on the Edition Wars. We can see the popularity of 3.5 searches slowly trend downward up to the release of 4e, and the huge spike of 4e searches at its release. However, 4e searches dropped down after the spike and have held pretty constant since, while 3.5 searches went back up. By 2009 searches for D&D 3.5 were back to 2005 levels.

Pathfinder is the big winner of the edition search trend. As 4e launched Pathfinder searches leaped up, and then held steady for about a year and leaped up again in the summer of ’09 to surpass 4e searches and have climbed ever since. Finally in the second half of 2011 Pathfinder searches passed searches for the beloved D&D 3.5.


As always, we’re just looking at one data set here and there are a lot of different ways of pulling statistics out of Google data. However, I think this gives us some interesting information. The overall trend of various editions confirms what’s been reported for sales data of Pathfinder vs D&D 4th edition. But unlike sales data, the info from Google lets us compare the search popularity of out of print editions that are no longer sold through distribution channels.

D&D 3.5 remains incredibly popular, dwarfing the currently in-print 4e despite that fact that no new official material has been printed in four years. While 4th edition certainly has plenty of fans, it has also pretty clearly lost a massive percentage of the D&D player base. Pathfinder has been capitalizing on this for years, offering that massive chunk of D&D 3.5 fans new material for the style of game that they prefer.

Wandering into the realm of informed speculation, I’d say that this data offers some hope for 5th edition, D&D Next. While it’s true that every new edition splinters the player base (there are still die-hard adherents to 1st and 2nd editions) and that Pathfinder has captured the majority of the players that are currently buying D&D books — there’s still those 3.5 fans. The D&D 3.5 search volume remains incredibly high, far higher than 4e and close to the Pathfinder level. If WotC can manage to bring most of those 3.5 adherents back into the fold and convert most of the 4e players over, they have a chance to reclaim top place for D&D sales.

The real question is whether the Pathfinder fans will stick with Pathfinder, or if they’ll move back to D&D if WotC can offer then a game that better fits the playstyle they prefer. Or perhaps the other real question is why WotC doesn’t just reprint 3.5 — if the Google search numbers are any representation, a simple 3.5 reprint/update could double the sales of 4e right there. [Update: apparently I missed that they are, in fact, reprinting 3.5 “premium” versions going on sale in Sept 18th — and based on this data that’s a good call]

World Building

I’ve been spending far more time than I should lately reading about the Pellatarrum setting over at Lurking Rhythmically. It’s a D&D (or Pathfinder) setting that throws off some of the standard fantasy setting tropes; after all almost all settings are really just variations of a Tolkien-esque western European fantasy world. While Pellatarrum has the familiar fantasy races — dwarves and elves and orcs — so that it’s familiar enough for RPG gamers, the world itself is startling different.

It reminds me in some ways of the feeling I had when reading the Prince of Nothing series (which was a kind of eastern fantasy setting) — the idea that hey, this is magic and make-believe, it can be anything so why is everyone always doing it exactly the same?

In the ancient history of Pellatarrum Armageddon has already come and gone. The entire material plane was annihilated along with the outer planes, and thus all of the gods and demons. Small bits of the races survived in the elemental planes and, over enough time, managed to reconstruct the material plane — only very differently. It’s a vast disc rotating between the negative and positive energy planes and it’s these planes that provide day and night, rather than a sun.

This has all kinds of fascinating ramifications, including the fact that couples can only conceive during the daytime (when the positive energy is bathing the world). Liasons are safe at night, but the effects of the negative energy plane heighten the chances of STDs. The settings of Pellatarrum is filled with all kinds of neat concepts and ramifications. I’m also particularly fond of the creation of the races and the unique take on the culture of them all.

I definitely recommend checking out Pellatarrum. At the very least it’s the kind of thing that can help DMs rethink their own house-campaign settings and realize that this is fantasy and you can do anything you want with it.

D&D and the Probability Curve

Back when I worked at FFG I spent a lot of time with a lot of talented game designers (and even had one as a roommate). Talking with designers a lot infected me somewhat with their way of thinking about game mechanics — they look at them very abstractly, and pick them apart. They literally categorize mechanics into what kinds of mechanics are fun, which add strategy, and which just add complexity without depth. Heck, they even categorize fun into different kinds of fun.

A friend and I have been messing around with RPG mechanics for a while now, and this process has got me thinking about them a lot more, and thinking about what I think is the main mechanical flaw of the D&D system.

D&D Probability is a Line

Dungeons & Dragons has no probability curve. Because you roll just one die, there is no real distinction between an average result and an extremely good or extremely poor result. To some extent D&D tries to get around this by having more results average and only one really bad result and one or two good ones, but the core mechanical problem is that you’re only rolling one die.

If you roll 1d6, the odds of getting a 1, or a 6, or a 3 are exactly identical. If you roll a d20, same thing. The odds of getting a dead average result of 10 is the same (5%) as rolling a critical hit with a natural 20.

But go back to that d6 and change it to two d6 that you add together. Now suddenly the odds of getting a 7 are higher than any other number. The odds of rolling a 6 or an 8 are pretty good. The odds of rolling a 2 or a 12 are lower than anything else. The best possible result and the worst possible result are less likely than the most common result. You have a probability curve, rather than a straight line. Getting a remarkable success or failure is suddenly remarkable. It’s not exactly as likely as getting the most common result.

The lack of a probability curve in D&D causes all kinds of weirdness that you don’t see in more modern RPGs (well…. every RPG would be a more modern one, I suppose). Games like White Wolf’s RPGs have you roll a pool of dice, and add up the successes, bringing in a probability curve that lets you both reasonably estimate the likelihood of criticals, and have them be random enough to be exciting and cool. You can introduce other mechanics that change the shape of that probability curve, or that take advantage of specific places on the curve as a way of balancing, since you know the relative likelihood of each spot on the curve.

But in D&D you just got a line, which you can make longer or shorter, but the chance of rolling any one number is always the same.

A Solution?

I’m mostly just talking here, not suggesting that D&D needs a mechanical change. Rolling the single d20  is a signature of D&D and has been for decades, and it’s probably a sacred cow that you can’t do away with. Ultimately to get a curve you need multiple dice rolled, and for D&D rolling more than one die to attack just wouldn’t feel like D&D.

But from a pure game mechanic viewpoint, it’s pretty clumsy.