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Updated: 3 days 16 hours ago

Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 12:00

In Dungeons & Dragons, the threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an end that usually feels sad and disappointing. Fifth-edition D&D copes with this conflict by making death virtually impossible for characters above level 4. Only new characters typically die. The game’s designers embrace this bent. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. But at higher levels, players feel indestructible, and this lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. (See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.)

D&D needs a better way to add peril without the problem of dead characters. In my last post, I suggested a solution to limit the problem of dead characters: Substitute character deaths for more interesting and less permanent setbacks. But while writing the post, I realized the proposal hardly applied to fifth edition because only new characters die. Once you solve for dead characters, the game needs a higher risk of death.

How can a DM increase the threat of death?

Obviously, we can add more and tougher monsters. Higher challenge monsters rarely hit with enough damage to threaten higher-level characters. Maxing out the monsters’ damage increases their menace to a level that makes fights interesting.

We can run monsters with more cunning. See 4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous, D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes, and the book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing.

I support these approaches, because greater danger makes a more exciting game. But pressing threats too hard will create more total-party kills. D&D enthusiasts call them TPKs, and we don’t want them.

In fifth edition, fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, so the rules make TPKs more common than individual deaths. To raise the threat of death without substantially more TPKs, fallen characters must suffer a higher risk of dying.

If I were king of D&D rather than a DM who shuns house rules, I would rule that damage that exceeds the Constitution score of a character at 0 hit points results in death. Does that seem harsh? If so, perhaps you should sit down for my next bit.

The existing D&D rules offer one way to make the game more lethal. Monsters can deal killing blows to fallen characters. Older editions called this the coup de grâce. This edition calls it attacking an unconscious foe within 5 feet, gaining advantage, counting any hit as a critical, and then inflicting two failed death saves. That’s a mouthful, but at least I can say it without anyone laughing at me for pronouncing the P in coup de grâce.

Monsters have good reasons for dealing finishing blows.

  • Monsters of average intelligence who see a fallen foe magically healed will want to prevent more revivals.

  • Brainy monsters who recognize healers will avoid leaving unconscious enemies.

  • Demons, gnolls, and other creatures fueled by blood and destruction will delight in murdering enemies.

  • Creatures with a hostility toward particular party members might focus on slaying them. For example, drow might finish elves.

Despite the logic of finishing blows, DMs never let monsters make them because the tactic feels harsh. Such attacks single out players in a way that seems personal. Besides, although we want a threat of death, we would rather keep characters alive.

But handled with finesse, the risk of a finishing blow might make the game feel more dangerous and urgent without hard feelings and without sending character sheets to the shredder.

To make finishing blows work, players must see the risk and understand that the menace comes from the monsters.

If smart monsters resolve to make finishing blows because of potential healing, make their decision obvious. So if a character falls and gets revived, have an evil leader shout an order to finish any other characters who drop. Or at the start of the fight, have a mastermind point out the party’s healer and order the other monsters to knife anyone who falls.

Demons, gnolls, and other creatures who exalt in blood lust will gain a reputation for rending fallen foes. Make sure that the player characters hear such tales before they face battle.

All these warnings let players adapt their strategies to higher threats.

In most D&D games, players treat fallen characters with little urgency. Three strikes usually take a string of bad luck and a several turns to accumulate. Players often choose to make an attack over spending a turn pouring a healing potion into an ally. They expect plenty of time for healing after the fight.

Sometimes, party healers aiming for efficiency will avoid mending characters until they drop. Curiously, these healers know the rule that allows all damage below 0 to heal for free. When the dread warlord orders his soldiers to finish fallen characters, such metagaming ends immediately.

Simply a threat of finishing blows makes D&D battles feel much more dangerous and urgent. Plus if players adapt by healing characters before they drop and by immediately healing fallen allies, the number of deaths remains close to zero.

D&D rules make finishing blows a bit less dangerous than they seem. Typically, one inflicts two failed death saves, and leaves the character hanging to life. Monsters will assume that the one blow finished the character and will move to another foe. Let your monsters overlook their chance to kill characters with failed death saves. Still, be prepared to swap a potential character death for a more interesting complication.

After writing this post, I still feel unsure of the answer to the question I posed in my title. Tell me. Can a DM have monsters kill fallen characters without bringing hurt feelings?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 12:15

A few years ago, I heard someone suggest what I then considered the worst bit of roleplaying game advice ever: Let players choose whether to allow their characters to die. Except, hear me out, maybe something like that could work. Keep reading.

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign. See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

Making character deaths optional declares story most important, and games focused on storytelling can thrive with such a rule. The Fate roleplaying game rules explain, “Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome where compared to putting the character through hell.” Plus a journey through hell can emerge from the other side.

To remove death from a roleplaying game, make success and failure about stakes less final than shredding a dead character’s sheet.

D&D makes a tough candidate for this approach. Mainly, D&D tends to feature fighting evil with an emphasis on fighting. Combat is a life or death situation, especially when most players’ refuse to retreat or surrender. If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.

D&D has never been good with setbacks short of death. Co-creator Gary Gygax invented some, including level draining and equipment loss aided by things like rust monsters, but players hated all of them. Somehow a lost level or a ruined magic item seemed more punitive that a dead character.

Making death optional risks leaving D&D lifeless. In the Investigation Check podcast, Josh remembers a campaign where the players learned that no characters could die. “It started to feel stale when we didn’t feel like our characters were in any real danger. I didn’t feel motivated to level up or even get equipment, because I felt we were always going to make it out fine.” D&D needs a consequence of failure that is less disruptive and painful than character death, but that holds enough sting to keep a sense of danger.

To cope with character death, try bridging the gap between game and story by bargaining.

A good story requires two ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) obstacles that test and reveal the characters. To serve the story of a D&D game, players and the dungeon master take opposing interests. Players handle the characters while DMs pose the obstacles. In a healthy game, none of this makes the DM and players into opponents competing to win. As a player focused on story, understand that the best stories include some setbacks and perhaps even defeat. As a DM, become a fan of the characters. In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

When the dice rule that a character dies, and the player feels unready to end the character’s story, consider making a deal between the player and DM that improves the tale by substituting death for a different setback. The more the setback complicates the character’s imaginary life, the more the story wins.

My inner old-school gamer, who started playing before Tomb of Horrors reached stores, fears that sparing rightfully-dead characters coddles players and ruins D&D. Fortunately, trading deaths for lesser penalties has support from a man with perfect old-school credentials. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. You do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well.”

As the simplest consequence for letting a character live, accept a roll on the permanent injuries table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.272). Or perhaps that last death save never failed, but the next 3 times the character faces undead, he suffers from the frightened condition until he ends a turn with a successful Wisdom save.

Perhaps the character loses an item needed to reach the party’s ultimate goal. The dragon’s breath somehow missed the character and destroyed the party’s astral skiff. The death blow sundered the sword specifically forged to kill the Dragon King. This setback should still allow a final victory, but the path to success becomes more complicated. Maybe now the players must free the imprisoned smith with the skill to reforge the dragonslayer. Complications turn into adventure hooks.

The deal need not explain why the character lived, although a hunt for some explanation can fuel creativity. The deal swaps death—a bad outcome for the character and (probably) a bad outcome for the story—with an outcome that by provides a more interesting reversal of fortune. This means any unplanned plot twist can buy a life so long as it also complicates the character’s life. For example, normally DMs should avoid having non-player characters betray the party. Such treachery encourages players to see everyone as a foe. But if the twist comes from a unplanned complication that buys a character’s life, it works. Let’s make a deal.

Space battles pose a problem for roleplaying games. A photon torpedo or plasma bolt can destroy a space ship, vaporizing all on board. In scripted science fiction tales, the crew’s plot armor protects them, but in a roleplaying game, a space battle threatens to wreck a campaign with an instant total-party kill. The game Stars Without Number solves the problem with an ingenious solution: When a space ship takes critical damage, players can opt to substitute a crisis aboard the ship. The game swaps death for complications that enrich the adventure. In Stars Without Number, players roll on a table to determine the exact crisis. This takes the GM out of the process and makes the swap feel entirely impartial.

A player can opt to let a character die. Sometimes players have a new character in mind and feel ready to move on. Sometimes a noble sacrifice defending the bridge or holding the door seems like exactly the right end for a character’s arc.

Even if a player feels ready to accept a character’s fate, the deal might be to die forever, but not just yet. Perhaps instead of bleeding out, the character rises to her feet to defend the bridge or to strike the killing blow. And then, when her moment has passed, her mighty heart finally gives out. That’s a death for heroes.

By allowing players to escape death, DMs can run more tense, dangerous games while making the tale of the characters’ adventures more heroic and more compelling.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 12:15

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign.

Without characters facing the potential of dying, the game lacks tension and stakes. Decisions lose consequences because however characters act, they emerge unharmed—stronger thanks to experience. At his crankiest, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax railed against players who wanted campaigns that never threatened characters. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.” (See The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked.)

The D&D Open moments before my character (lower left) died to a Marilith

My favorite D&D sessions came in the D&D Open, tournaments where long odds made casualties almost inevitable. (See Why the Awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship Should Return.) The peril adds a weight and urgency to play that made ordinary game sessions pale. In D&D campaigns, the threat of death makes the characters feel like heroes because they brave real risks that can end their imaginary lives.

But while the threat of character death adds excitement and vitality to D&D, actual character deaths usually sour the game.

In those tournament games, dying meant dropping from the session. One player’s fun ended. In campaign games, death proves much worse. We players invest time in our characters. Creating one takes a half hour or more of effort to build, and then to invent a history, personality, and so on. Playing a character to higher levels demands hundreds of hours. A dead character seems to waste that investment. (Funny how we simply stop playing characters without feeling the same loss.) We become emotionally attached to our characters. We imagine story arcs for them where they grow and change and reach a meaningful conclusion to their journey. Death stifles those plans. Losing a character hurts.

Character deaths can also hurt campaigns. Today’s roleplayers foster connections between characters in a party. Dungeon masters strive to link a campaign world and its conflicts to characters. A death cuts all those connections and stalls story threads without resolution. The group faces the problem of introducing a new character into play and possibly reviving broken plot threads.

Through the years, D&D’s designers coped with the problem of death by making characters harder to kill. Originally, in the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, a single hit killed a character. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters,” D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said. He introduced hit points. (See The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit.)  In the 1974 D&D game, a character reduced to 0 hit points dropped dead, beyond healing. By the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) characters fell unconscious at 0 hp, and only died at -10 hp.

Even in original D&D, spells like raise dead often made death into a brief setback rather than a permanent loss. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “Death due to combat is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell.”

Resurrection magic spares characters from dropping out of play, but to hold some stakes, death must keep enough sting to make it feared. The original raise dead forced characters into two weeks of rest. In busy campaigns like Gary’s, that sidelined a character and forced players to bring one from the bench. (See Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign.) Still, a two week break rates as a trivial setback, especially when few campaigns keep a calendar. AD&D added a risk of failed resurrections and a limit to the number of resurrections. Third edition features the best version of raise dead: Revived characters lost a level. This consequence adds enough fear of death to lend tension to the game, while limiting the chance of removing a character from the game.

AD&D’s reincarnation spell rates as the worst example of resurrection magic. Players would have characters kill themselves until they reincarnated as an ogre mage. Clearly, those campaigns featured very little role playing.

Fifth edition suffers from D&D’s most namby-pamby version of raise dead. After a long weekend, resurrected characters shake all the effects of death. Further, most characters can afford resurrections without a loan. (See Dungeons & Dragons Stopped Giving XP for Gold, but the Insane Economy Remains.) This lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. No wonder the designers of the Tomb of Annihilation adventure felt a need to make death more threatening. The circumstances of the adventure temporarily blocked raising the dead and imposed a risk of permanent death. Gary would be proud.

While raise dead can benefit the game, resurrection magic must give D&D novelists fits. How do you place characters in peril when rules-savvy readers know how easy resurrection should be? I’m told most D&D writers just ignore such easy miracles in their tales. Who can blame them for looking away and whistling past the empty graveyard?

Fifth edition’s forgiving rules for character death make characters above 4th level just about impossible to kill. Because fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, total party kills have become more common than individual deaths.

In modern D&D, only new characters typically die. The designers embrace this quirk. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. Still, new players typically play new characters, so the design risks distressing potential converts by dealing abrupt deaths. (See Sly Flourish on Building 1st Level Combat Encounters. Hint: Have a kindly priest cast aid on your players’ 1st-level party.)

While the risk of character death has shrunk, the threat of death has always remained part of D&D. Despite ranting against players who failed to risk characters’ lives, Gary saw the tension between needing death in the game and the pain of actually losing characters. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he writes, “It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well,” and then he suggests ways to avoid killing a character. But in the same paragraph, he warns DMs to never tamper with the system shock roll that a character must make to be successfully raised from the dead. “There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each.”

Next: Death, stakes, and bargaining. How letting characters opt out of death might improve a D&D game and its story.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

10 Favorite Nuggets From Monte Cook’s Your Best Game Ever

Tue, 11/12/2019 - 12:10

Roleplaying games have benefited from decades of advice for players and game masters. Every year, several new books offering help to roleplaying gamers reach print. Meanwhile, bloggers like me and countless others post advice and hope someone finds it useful.

With all this coaching, who needs more? For my part, I look for topics that haven’t gained much discussion and gather the best suggestions.

Monte Cook brings credentials earned through a long career in roleplaying games. In 1988, Cook started working for Iron Crown Enterprises on their Rolemaster and Champions games. By 1992, he started working for TSR where he penned Dead Gods, one of the greatest D&D adventures since 1985. He served as a lead designer on D&D’s third edition. For his Monte Cook Games, he designed roleplaying games such as Numenera, Invisible Sun, and The Strange. Among living RPG designers, Monte surely rates as the most famous and acclaimed.

This year, Monte published Your Best Game Ever, “A tool book, not a rulebook—for everyone who plays or runs roleplaying games.” When this book of advice reached Kickstarter, it rated as a must for me.

The finished book brought a couple of surprises. First, the campaign touted a long list of contributes from roleplaying game pioneers like Jennell Jaquays to famous voices like Matthew Mercer. I expected a compilation of advice from the contributors. Instead Monte stands as the book’s primary author, with the contributors seasoning the book with short sidebars. This makes a happy surprise because Monte brings a singular voice of 30-some years experience, which gives the book a clear, consistent feel. Second, outside of starter sets, few books of roleplaying advice aim to help beginners. Your Best Game Ever starts as a primer for new players, and then builds to help veteran gamers. This old enthusiast kept noting favorite quotes and even pages.

I chose ten passages from a 240 page book to give a taste of the content inside. But as I read and scribbled notes, I kept thinking that Your Best Game Ever rates as a book I want to come back to again and again. Highly recommended.

1. Lean Into Failure (Occasionally) (p.58)

You play games to win, and you win an RPG by succeeding at your goals (defeat the villain, get the gold, get more powerful, and the like). But if you’re a player focused on story, you need to look at things a little differently sometimes, because to win an RPG from this perspective is to tell a great story. And sometimes the best stories arise out of failure or defeat.

2. Anticipating Where the PCs Will Go (p.99)

A good GM knows where the PCs will go and what they’ll do before they do. However, the GM doesn’t force them to go anywhere or do anything. How on earth do you accomplish that?

Players have their PCs go where things sound most appealing, interesting, or fulfilling of their goals (wealth, power, information, the recovery of the kidnapped duke, or whatever). And you are the one who controls the places and things that fit that description.

Sometimes, you can subtly encourage the PCs to go in a certain direction or do a certain thing (because you’ve got stuff prepared for that choice). You do this by observing and learning what the players are likely to do. Once you figure things like that out, you can guide the players and they won’t even know you’re doing it.

3. Leading Questions (p.128)

GMs should be very aware of when they ask leading questions. Now, my point here isn’t to encourage you to avoid them—just to be aware of them. Sometimes, leading questions are valuable tools. But most players will read into a leading question, so don’t use them unless you want a player to read into them. This leading question is probably the most powerful in the arsenal: Are you sure you want to do that?

4. Speaking for the Group (p.129)

Sometimes one player will attempt to speak for the group, saying something like “We turn on our flashlights and go inside the warehouse.” If that happens, just go with it. If the other players don’t object, it makes things a little easier and moves them along a little faster. You don’t have to get confirmation from all the other players. It’s their duty to pay attention and interject with “Wait, I don’t want to go into the warehouse,” or “I’ll stay outside while everyone else goes in” if that’s how they feel.

5. Answering Questions (p.129)

Sometimes a player will ask a question that they shouldn’t have the answer to. Questions like “Are the police in this town corrupt?” or “Where do criminals fence their stolen goods around here?” Rather than saying, “You don’t know,” try instead asking the player “How will you go about finding the answer to that question?” Doing that turns their question into a forward-moving action. It becomes something to do, and doing things is more interesting than asking the GM questions.

6. Pacing Within a Session—Important Moments (p.132)

Sometimes, though, it’s worth taking a bit of time with an important moment. An audience with the queen, the appearance of an elder god, or flying a spaceship into a black hole are all scenes where it might be okay to take your time. In fact, the change of pacing will highlight the importance of the moment and can, all by itself, convey the gravity you want. But here’s the thing about slower pacing—you have to fill up the gaps with something. In other words, it’s okay to slow things down, but if you do, you need more evocative description, more intriguing NPCs, or more exciting action.

7. Pacing Within a Session—Unimportant Moments (p.132)

A GM who is adept at pacing will take this a step further, to the point of perhaps surprising the players, at least at first. If there are a couple of rather low-powered guards at the entrance to a high-tech complex and the players announce their intention to take them out quickly, the GM might just say, “Okay, you knock out the guards. What do you do with their unconscious bodies?” No die rolls, no game mechanics.

That will catch the players off guard at first, but it’s going to tell them about the difficulty of the challenge and the importance of the encounter. In an instance like this, the GM knows that PC victory is a foregone conclusion, and rather than taking ten minutes to resolve the rather meaningless encounter, they simply get to the heart of the matter, which is what the PCs do immediately after the fight—do they try to hide their infiltration or charge right in? Because the GM knows that decision will affect the rest of the session far more than how much damage they can inflict on a low-powered foe. Plus, it saves session time for the challenging encounters to come.

8. Enduring Player Agency (p.136) If you put a PC in a situation where their abilities don’t work, you’re taking away their agency. Rather than negate their abilities, require them. If a character can phase through walls, don’t set up the villain’s fortress so that the walls prevent phasing. Instead, make it so that phasing is literally the only way the PCs can get in. By requiring that ability, you’ve rewarded the player for selecting it.

9. Even a Simple Game Is Fun (p.142)

The events that occur because of ideas generated by the players rather than the GM, and events that come about because of the inherent randomness of the game, are far more likely to make or break a session than the ideas the GM provides.

My point here isn’t to contend that the GM doesn’t matter. As someone who loves running RPGs more than almost any other activity, I’d never say that. What I’m saying is don’t put too much pressure on yourself as you’re getting ready to run a session, particularly if you’re a new GM. I’ve made this point many times, but I’ll make it again: RPGs are about group storytelling. It’s not all on you. It’s on the group as a whole.

10. Character Death (p.230)

Sometimes in RPGs we gloss over the effects of death in the story, but that’s not entirely believable and means missing out on great narrative opportunities. If a character dies, talk about how that impacts the survivors. Have a funeral in the story. Track down their next of kin. Build a memorial. Do something to recognize that the characters in the group are very likely close friends and would react as people who have lost someone significant in their lives.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

Tue, 11/05/2019 - 11:18

1. Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax introduced the Magic Missile spell in the original game’s first supplement, Greyhawk (1975). “This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes.” After that sentence, the description tells how higher-level magic users shoot extra missiles.

2. Gary took the idea for Magic Missile from the 1963 movie The Raven. The movie ends with a wizard duel between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Karloff flings bolts of energy at Price, who brushes them aside with a flick of his hand.

3. The exchange that inspired Magic Missile also led to the Shield spell, so the original Player’s Handbook (1978) explains, “This shield will totally negate magic missile attacks.” This property remains in fifth-edition D&D.

4. The original description of Magic Missile led players to dispute whether casters needed to make a to-hit roll. J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the 1977 Basic Set, opted for yes. His rules explain that casters must roll the same missile attack as a longbow. Gary settled on no. The Players Handbook states that the missiles “unerringly strike their target.”

Magic missiles always hit without allowing a saving throw, even though in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) Gary stresses the importance of saves. Player characters “must always have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction.”

5. D&D’s fourth-edition designers seemed uncomfortable with a spell that always hit without a save, so the edition’s original version required an attack roll. When D&D fans griped that fourth veered too far from the game’s roots, the designers appealed to nostalgia by again making the missiles always hit. The 2010 rules update announces the change.

6. In fifth edition, wizards can add missiles by casting Magic Missile with a higher-level spell slot. In earlier editions, higher-level casters gain extra missiles for free. Back then, magic users started as weak characters who only launched one missile when they cast their day’s only 1st-level spell. But wizards steadily gained more spells, and higher-level spells, and even their first-level spells like Magic Missile gained strength. At higher levels, wizards boasted much more power than any other class. Gary Gygax felt comfortable with dominant, high-level wizards so long as they suffered through lower levels as feeble magic users. Today’s designers strive to match the power of every class at every level. Part of that balance comes from attaching a price to extra missiles.

7. In fifth edition, the missiles strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. A concentrating spellcaster hit by multiple missiles makes one Constitution save against a difficulty class set by the volley’s total damage. See 9 More Fifth-Edition D&D Rules Questions Answered by the Designers.

8. Strictly by the fifth-edition rules, when you cast Magic Missile, you roll 1d4 and use the result to set the same damage for every missile. This stems from a rule on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook. “If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them.” The interpretation comes from lead-designer Jeremy Crawford. In practice, Jeremy allows players to roll separate damage for every missile, just like Gary did in 1975.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 11:25

In Dungeons & Dragons Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead players to pile-on checks. One character talks to someone, asks to roll insight, and then everyone adds their roll. The group supposes that just one success will spot a lie. If the dungeon master allows such checks, someone almost invariably uncovers any deception. By such rules, lying to big groups becomes impossible, which makes insight checks the most unrealistic thing in a game with djinns in bottles who grant wishes.

If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, never roll group insight checks where one high roll brings success. Instead, opt for one of two methods. The choice of method depends on whether you, as DM, want players to roll their check.

  • If the players roll, the numbers on the dice give players unearned hints. Low numbers tell the players they probably failed and not to trust their insight; high numbers suggest they succeeded and that, for instance, an NPC who appears honest can be trusted.

  • If you roll in secret, the players feel deprived of some control over their fate. After all, some DMs will fudge rolls to protect a planned narrative. Also, players like rolling dice, especially if rolling gives unearned hints.

Players roll group checks

If you allow players to roll, call for a group check where everyone makes a Wisdom (Insight) check and at least half the group must succeed.

This method may see odd, because group checks apply to situations where one failure could potentially cause the whole group to fail. For instance, one noisy character could alert the guards the party wants to sneak past. But group checks actually fit insight checks with no sure answers. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters reveal their insight to the others. If too many characters fail, the group suffers a difference of opinion that leaves everyone uncertain. Or perhaps Terry the Apothecary just proved hard to read.

Don’t tell players which characters suspect lies. Players who know that and their die rolls gain a metagame-based lie detector.

Set the difficulty class for the checks by adding 10 to the liar’s Charisma (Deception) bonus, so the DC equals the liar’s passive deception.

DMs roll a single check

As a DM, you could roll a secret, group Wisdom (Insight) check, but tracking several die rolls and bonuses would slow the game. Instead, roll one check for the character in the scene with the highest Wisdom (Insight) bonus. By using the highest insight score rather than a group of scores, this method benefits the players. On the other hand, the players lose any hints they gain from seeing the numbers. Don’t grant advantage for help coming from the other players. We don’t want to make spotting lies unrealistically easy. This method presumes that the rest of the group offers little help to the most insightful character. Either the others also spot the deception, or they muddy the waters by being more easily fooled.

Alternately, roll one Charisma (Deception) check for the liar against a DC set by the group’s highest passive Wisdom (Insight) score. If the deceiver fails, describe signs of deception. On success, the liar seems legit. I like this reversal because the odds stay the same, but you roll on behalf of the more active character.

Usually a liar only needs to make one deception check, but if the pressure increases thanks to sharp questions, or their lies begin to unravel, you might require fast talking and another check.

Success and failure

Whatever type of check you use, if the outcome favors the players, a liar shows signs of deception and an honest character seems trustworthy. Otherwise, the target of the check seems hard to read.

Rather than flatly stating that someone lies, describe signs of deception: A lying person may sweat or otherwise appear anxious. Perhaps they start speaking in a manner that seems rehearsed. Someone with something to hide might avoid eye contact or become hesitant while speaking. Perhaps their words and body language fail to match. For example, they might nod yes during a denial. For countless more symptoms, search the internet for “signs of deception.”

When a check goes badly against the players—call it a fumble even though D&D lacks critical failures—the party may get the wrong impression. Perhaps an honest person shows misleading signs of deception. Follow what works for the story and your inclination to deceive the players. Maybe an honest person just feels nervous in the presence of such esteemed adventurers (or such temperamental and murderous treasure hunters).

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

Tue, 10/22/2019 - 11:15

As a dungeon master, I rarely ask everyone in the party to make perception, investigation, or knowledge checks, because someone almost always rolls high. With these checks, just one high roll yields the information the players want. Why bother rolling for a virtually certain outcome?

I asked this question of Dungeons & Dragons fans and gained hundreds of responses.

Many comments mentioned that passive checks—especially passive Wisdom (Perception) checks—fit most times everyone might roll.

So why roll instead?

Even though DMs realize that saying “everyone roll” almost guarantees success, they ask because players enjoy rolling. For many players, the game only begins when the dice fly.

Plus, “everyone roll” is D&D theater. You know the outcome but asking grabs attention and spurs the players into real-world action. Jamie LaFountain writes, “Everyone rolling is a nice smoke-and-mirrors trick when you want to get a piece of information out to the group and give the illusion of risk of failure.”

Sometimes everyone rolls without a request from the DM. One person makes a check, and all the other players snap to attention and try too. For example, the character at the dungeon door looks it over, muffs a perception check, and then everyone else starts rolling and calling numbers. What should a DM do?

First, you might gently remind your players that rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a slight lapse of table decorum. “When I’m a player I loathe that everyone at the table feels the need to also roll a check,” Sam Witkowski writes. Such piling on robs the active player of their moment—their chance to be rewarded for their action. Checks should happen when a DM decides that a character’s action in the game world merits a check.

Ask the other players what their characters do. If nobody approaches to spot the door’s faded inscription, ignore their checks. If everyone takes a turn up close, consider any time pressure, but let everyone roll (and maybe a wandering monster opens the door from the other side).

Actions prompt checks, so making a perception check typically means taking a closer look. If the party just crosses a room and you want to see if someone notices a trap door, D&D’s rules suggest using passive Wisdom (Perception) rather than calling for a roll. You can limit passive checks to those closest to the trap door, so players benefit from letting the perceptive character lead. (And remember in dim light, the check is at disadvantage, a passive -5. Darkness counts as dim light for characters relying on darkvision.)

Players pile on lore checks too. These are checks against skills like History, Arcana, and Religion to discover if a character brings some knowledge to a situation. Everybody rolling for knowledge typically assures success. Such group rolls often show that the most unlikely character knows some bit of obscure lore.

Group knowledge rolls diminish the choices of players who invested proficiency in knowing things. If you always let everyone roll for an inevitable success, the value of knowledge skills drops to almost nothing. Success comes from making five rolls rather than from proficiency.

When everyone rolls, the one sage proficient in a skill will seldom roll a better success than the four know-nothings in the party. Still, some DMs enjoy the surprise of seeing the barbarian beat the wizard’s arcane knowledge. Such occasions can reveal character.

The next time every character wants to pile on a knowledge check, consider letting them, but ask players to roll only if they think their character might know something. Then if the barbarian lucks into a 20, say, “I’ll tell you about the enchantment on the door, but first can your tell me how someone fostered by wolves knows about wards forged on the plane of Mechanus?” Asking “how can this be so?” fuels creativity. “The barbarian may not know what that symbol means is or what civilization used it, but they remember seeing something similar 10 years ago on a crypt outside of Blahland,” writes Jonathan Hibberd. Either players add interesting bits of background to their characters, or they admit to knowing nothing.

Letting everyone roll a lore check works best when you have lots of information to offer. Every success yields a fun fact. By granting information for good rolls, you can make an information dump feel like a series of rewards.

For extra value, try to make the tidbits feel unique to each character’s background, nature, and outlook. D.W. Dagon writes, “A Religion check from a cloistered scholar is going to be resolved very differently to the same check from an outlander. It’s a great opportunity to bring forth each character’s unique backstory in a way which forwards story.”

DMs who want to see if a character discovers a secret may ask for everyone to roll. The player who succeeds gains confidential information. Don’t do this if you expect players to share the information. Players tend to guard secrets, even when they have no reason to.

Everyone roll almost guarantees success, but sometimes no one rolls better than a 6—including the character starting with a +5. If you call for everyone to roll, expect success, but be ready for a fail. If the adventurers must know something, then just tell them.

Some DMs keep track of characters’ proficiencies for this purpose. “If I can prepare,” Thomas Christy writes, “I love to find out who is trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” During the game, the players can reveal their knowledge in-character. When players remember their knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

You can treat knowledge skills as passive. Without a roll, tell players what their character knows based on, say, their Intelligence (Religion) bonus. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.

If you want to make checking for a bit of obscure lore into a real test, allow fewer characters to roll.

  • Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.

  • Limit the check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages action.

  • Limit the check to the most knowledgeable character, and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.

You can impose similar limits on investigation. Limit Intelligence (Investigation) rolls to the best detective or to the active character, and then grant advantage based on the help from other characters.

Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead to pile-on checks. If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, then more than one person should never roll a Wisdom (Insight) check. Next week, I’ll explain how to cope with Insight.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 11:24

If you are a dungeon master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought dungeon masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I’ve learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, dungeon masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the dungeon master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons.

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an non-player character might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the character’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tallying experience points. Players keep track of the gold they win. Why not have a player keep track of experience points too? After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Numbering monsters. I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Compared to players attacking “this” and “that” monster, the numbers avoid confusion and speed play. Tracking damage becomes easier. See Number Your Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map. Usually, I hand one player a stack of numbered markers and let them tag the monsters.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the DM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. When a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe their moment. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the dungeon master. It belongs to everyone at the table. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 11:15

If you want to play more Dungeons & Dragons, but can’t find opportunities, then you must try the D&D Adventurers League. The League runs an ongoing, official campaign for D&D. This campaign lets you create a character and bring it from table to table, game store to store, convention to convention. In online league games, I’ve joined players connecting from Germany, Russia, and New Zealand—and I only occasionally play online.

For most players, the league solves the problem of finding a D&D game.

Get the Dungeons & Dragon Adventurers League Season 9 Quick Start PDF

Many local game shops host regular league games. These programs thrive on new players and they welcome guests. Some business travelers who live on the road make a point of seeking games in the places they visit.

Most D&D games at conventions follow the league. For some D&D players, league games at one annual convention amount to all their D&D play for the year.

To start with the league, I suggest going to the Adventurers League site and looking for a game store hosting games. Then contact the store. If nothing is close enough, find a regional convention and make a weekend of gaming. Or play online.

Even if you prefer to find or start a home game with a consistent group of players in an ongoing campaign, the league makes a great place to start. In league games, you will meet players and dungeon masters whose style matches yours. You can find and recruit like-minded players for a home game.

While the league’s campaign rules create a certain consistency, the league aims to accommodate players who favor different play styles, whether role playing, story, or combat. DMs and players vary from table to table and they bring their tastes to the game. If one session doesn’t suit you, try a different DM or a different location.

The league operates in seasons matched to the hardcover adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. The 9th season, supporting Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, launched in September. 

Until now, the league administrators have coped with troublesome players by weighing the campaign with more and more cumbersome rules. See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win. This season marks a change of direction toward lightweight, elegant campaign rules. By season 8, the league required players with a stubborn commitment to mastering legalities. Season 9 makes the league more welcoming to casual players than ever.

The league offers an unmatched opportunity for DMs and adventure writers to boost their skills. For DMs, no practice works as well as running games for strangers. For adventure authors, running games for strangers gives you a better sense of the characters that players bring, the choices they make, and the tactics they adopt. No home game can bring the same experience. I suspect the best new authors penning Adventurers League scenarios bring ample experience running for strangers.

To help you start with the league—and to help veterans bring new players on board—I present a 1-sheet, quick start guide for the league’s new Season 9. My thanks go to Adam Corney, who did the heavy lifting of updating the sheet for season 9.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

Tue, 10/01/2019 - 13:35

The earliest character sheet for the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons includes 8 character traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning. The character comes from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which launched in 1971. See A History of D&D in 12 Treasures from author Jon Peterson.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle, so the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

In the Blackmoor campaign, Dave used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. For example, on page 28 of The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Dave describes how characters had to roll under their Dexterity score to remove their armor before drowning in Blackmoor Bay.

That example cites D&D’s Dexterity attribute, a score the original Blackmoor characters lacked. If Dave and his players used ability scores for saves, how did the rules omit a score for dodging? For his game, Dave also borrowed the saving throw categories from Chainmail—a 1971 set of rules for miniature-figure battles. Boggs speculates that these types for Dragon Breath, Spider Poison, Basilisk Gaze, and Spells covered enough cases to make a Dexterity attribute unnecessary.

How did Blackmoor’s personality traits turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

In 1972, Dave introduced his Blackmoor campaign to Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail. Dave’s game transformed bits of Chainmail into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

In the case of ability scores, Gary reworked the Blackmoor attributes into D&D’s. For example, Gary never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. (Later, Unearthed Arcana and other roleplaying games would experiment with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty.)

Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. The 1977 Basic Set provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. So eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear archetype in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and Van Helsing. These clerics made an awkward fit in the pulp-fantasy world of D&D and lacked a place in other games. In 1975, when TSR adapted the D&D rules to different settings to create Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne, the games dropped clerics and their Wisdom attribute.

Instead designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength.

Apparently, these games led Gary to see a need for a similar rating for D&D characters. Instead of adding a new attribute, Gary broadened Wisdom to include willpower. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook grants characters with high wisdom a bonus to saves against “mental attack forms involving will force.” Only a strained definition of wisdom includes willpower, but until then Wisdom only served clerics. The broader scope gave Wisdom similar weight to the other attributes.

Years later, Wisdom would gain an association with perception. Games without Wisdom tend to associate perception with Intelligence.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

When Gary wrote D&D, he never explained how to use ability scores for checks. In his own game, Gary preferred a loose method where he decided on a character’s chance of success and improvised a die roll to match. For saves, Gary just elaborated on the system from the Chainmail rules.

So according to D&D’s original rules, ability scores counted for little. The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die.

These slight effects mean that early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to the modern game, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Related:
The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 11:15

In a heist film, a group of experts team to overcome elaborate security measures using a carefully planned series of steps. Much of the fun comes from seeing the ingenuity of the heroes as they crack seemingly impenetrable obstacles as if they were puzzles.

Roleplaying games such as Blades in the Dark and Leverage offer rules for adventures centered on heists.

As an activity for a roleplaying game, heists pose two challenges:

  • The exhaustive planning behind a typical heist would tax the patience of gamers eager to jump to live play.

  • The characters in a heist have more experience and expertise in the game world than the players can match. These characters can plan for trouble that surprises the players.

Heist games use a flashback mechanic to substitute for the planning players would rather skip and the expertise they lack. Players can call for a flashback to do preparations in the past that affect the current situation.

In my last post, I suggested using flashbacks as a formal way to allow players to pause the action and work out the strategy that their expert characters would have planned earlier.

For Dungeons & Dragons sessions where players attempt a heist, adding a flashback rule helps capture the feel of a well-planned caper.

When players face an obstacle, they can call for a flashback and describe a past action that impacts the current situation. For example, if the characters face a cult priest who demands to see the tattoo that shows their cult membership, they could flashback and narrate the scene where they forged the mark. This might require a deception roll to pass the priest’s inspection.

Flashbacks don’t work as time travel. The players couldn’t flashback to the scene where they killed the priest—he stands in front of them.

As a dungeon master, you might require an Intelligence check to determine if the character anticipated the situation and did the proposed preparation. The more unlikely the circumstance, the higher the DC.

As a price for a flashback, you can claim a character’s inspiration, take DM’s inspiration to spend on a villain’s roll, or both. The price of a flashback might start at nothing, and then rise through the game session.

Flashbacks make a lightweight mechanic that you can easily adopt for a session focused on a planned mission.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How Much Talk at Your Game Table Reaches Into the Game World?

Tue, 09/17/2019 - 11:06

Suppose your players aim to stop raiders somehow able to slip past the town’s defenses. They meet the woman who leads the city guard. Mid conversation, the rogue’s player says, “I’m sure she’s behind the raids. We should just kill her.” In your game, did the rogue really say that out loud? If not out loud, did he whisper to the other characters? What does the guard captain make of the troubling whispers?

Or suppose the players offer to give a dragon a magic item in exchange for safe passage, but the negotiation scene pauses as the players debate which item to trade. Does the dragon hear their talk of a cursed sword?

In a battle, when the players discuss the best way to maneuver their foes into a fireball’s area, do their foes overhear the strategy?

How much discussion at your game table carries into the game world?

At many tables, none of the discussion at the table reaches the game world unless it suits the players—sometimes after a dispute over what happened and what was just a joke.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm settles the disputes and answers such questions with a convention he calls the murky mirror. “The players and the characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections. But they are synchronous. If the players are sitting around and talking, then so are the characters. They are saying basically the same things, though they might be using different words.

“For example, when the player says, ‘My character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,’ his character is probably saying something like, ‘Scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.’” By the convention, whether players talk about their character or in character, they communicate a similar message in the game world. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter. So when a non-player character named Elmo causes the players at my Ghosts of Saltmarsh table to erupt into a round of joking, the heroes in the game find the name just as funny, but for different reasons.

The murky mirror usually applies to scenes, the parts of the game where characters with a goal face obstacles to overcome. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

In D&D, a 6-second combat round may take 20 minutes to play out, so the synchronization must allow plenty of latitude. In practice, the party can’t limit discussion to six seconds or less. Still, players can’t pause a round for a 10-minute strategy discussion.

This murky mirror convention can benefit the game in a few ways:

  • Raised stakes. The players’ actions in the real world trace to consequences in the game world. When someone says the wrong thing, they can’t backpedal and claim they intended an out-of-game joke.

  • Immediacy. The game world and the game table both live in the moment.

  • Immersion. Players stay closer to their characters.

  • Faster pacing. Even loose synchronization between the real world and the game world adds urgency to fights. “If I see my group stopping every turn in combat to discuss every action, I will stop them and force whoever’s turn it is to make a decision,” Angry writes. “You only have a few seconds to act. What do you do?”

The murky mirror suits games where players dive into character and strive to prevail through skillful game play.

Most game tables settle for an informal convenience where players drop in and out of character, often only affecting the game world when it suits them. The banter and joking stay out of game.

This represents a looser, beer-and-pretzels style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. Or possibly a style where storytelling takes the focus. Some players who favor narrative compare the forgiving style with a writers’ room. Most TV shows come from a team of writers who gather in a room and imagine story arcs and character beats.

A game like D&D differs from a room-written script because the screenwriters look for ways to thwart and test their characters—an essential part of storytelling. In most roleplaying games, only the GM intentionally complicates the characters’ lives. (The players unintentionally complicate their lives when they suggest murdering the guard captain while in her presence.) Games focused on storytelling may include mechanics that encourage players to add trouble to their characters’ lives.

In the loose style of most game tables, when players stop a scene to decide whether to accuse the guard captain or what magic item to trade, we assume that the actual discussion happened earlier. Or we assume that the characters’ time together leaves them with unspoken signals or a mutual understanding. After all, heroes in the game share experience in the imaginary world that players cannot match.

Introduce the murky mirror at a campaign’s launch or just before key scenes. Marty “Raging Owlbear” Walser says, “Occasionally for a very important scene, I tell the players, ‘You are now live.’ No out-of-character talk.’ It can really ramp up tension.”

Most of the time, the murky mirror just requires in-game reminders that, say, players in the tavern overhear the players’ argument. For dangerous lapses, the GM should remind players and allow a do over. If a player blurts, “I’ll bet she’s behind the raids. We should kill her,” then ask, “Do you really want to say that?”

“After all, the point of the murky mirror is to make things easier and more fun and less bitter and fighty for everyone. You shouldn’t be using it to gleefully pounce on a player who makes a stupid mistake,” Angry writes. That seems forgiving for a GM who makes a brand of raging. As players learn the convention, such lapses will become rare.

I see one potential downside to the murky mirror. Players who know they cannot freeze time to make plans may weigh the game with too much advance planning. As a dungeon master, I love when the players pause to plan—it shows an appreciation of the game world’s stakes and obstacles. But advance planning for every possibility delays diving in and playing. That’s the heart of the game.

To adopt the murky mirror while still allowing some flexibility to stop time and strategize, consider allowing flashbacks. The flashback mechanic borrows from roleplaying games like Blades in the Dark and Leverage. Players can announce flashbacks to recall planning they did in the past. It gives players a formal way to stop time and spin strategy. Players can only flashback from a situation they could have planned for.

An informal flashback can come from the GM. If the players stop a scene for the planning they could have done earlier, you can jump in and frame the planning as a flashback.

I still want to know. How much talk at your game table reaches the game world?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 11:16

Many Dungeons & Dragons players love animal companions for their characters, but the game’s fifth edition suffers uneven support for the archetype. Only specific character builds gain access to pets, and creating a character with an effective companion often requires a deep understanding of the game. For instance, of all the game’s class archetypes, the Beast Master ranger earns the most criticism for being too weak. To make beast masters able to hold their own, players must make some canny choices. More on that at the end.

The best route to an animal companion depends on what you want your companion to do. The more capable the pet, the more limited your options. A friendly mascot for your adventuring party hardly requires anything, but a pet capable of battling alongside a higher-level character confines you to just a few character options.

Ask yourself what you want from your pet. This post tells how to find the right creature companion.

For a friend or mascot, befriend and train a creature. In a tweet, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford writes, “Want your D&D character to have a pet or companion? Here’s a little secret: You don’t need special rules for this. Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy, as long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

Dungeon masters: When players encounter hostile animals, the characters may try to make friends instead of fighting. Players love turning an angry beast into a mascot or companion to the party. Players attracted to this strategy love seeing it succeed. Treat the creature as a non-player character. As with any tag-along character, the best such animal companions prove useful, but never overshadow characters.

For a horse or similar mount, play a paladin. At level 5, paladins gain the ability to cast Find Steed which summons a spirit that takes the shape of a horse or similar mount. At level 9, Find Greater Steed brings a flying steed such as a Griffin. This mount lasts until you dismiss it or until it drops to 0 hit points. You and your mount can communicate telepathically.

The Find Steed spells share a feature and flaw with many of D&D’s pets. Rather than gaining a live companion worthy of an emotional attachment, the spell brings a spirit. The spiritual steeds boast the intelligence of Maximus, the determined horse in Tangled, but I wish for personality to match too.

In an interview, D&D Designer Mike Mearls said, “Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.” In fifth edition, the designers mainly chose the advantages of spirit companions.

Still, nothing says your spirit mount can’t show personality. Perhaps particularly brave and true horses serve in the afterlife as a paladin’s steed. Now I want to play a paladin who struggles with temptation paired with a horse whose spirit mission includes dragging my hero out of the tavern before he has one too many.

For a scout, helpful distraction, or spell conduit, learn Find Familiar. I’ve seen enough familiars in play to witness their utility, but before researching this post, I still underestimated their power. For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, Wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players made better use of familiars, the spell would count as broken.

Find Familiar lets you summon a spirit animal in a variety of forms: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish, rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Just about every animated sidekick matches something on the list of familiars. Want to play like an animated Disney hero with a wise or comical critter for a companion? Sadly, familiars can’t talk. The designers really missed an opportunity here. Even players who claim they can’t do voices can do a toad voice. It’s so fun.

Still, your sidekick can help. Try these uses:

  • Use your flying, creeping, or swimming critter to scout, while you watch through its eyes. My players used a familiar to explore five levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods while the party stood safely in the first hall. Doors stopped the creature, but so much of that dungeon stands open.

  • Use your flying familiar to perform the Help action on the battlefield, giving allies advantage on attack rolls. Eventually, an annoyed monster will smack down your bird, but that’s one less attack on friends, which may save a 50 gp healing potion. Re-summoning the familiar costs 10 gold, which counts as money well spent.

  • Use your flying familiar to target touch spells from a distance. For clerics who heal through touch, gaining a flying familiar might justify the cost of a feat. Play a grave cleric with a raven familiar.

  • Use your familiar to channel damaging spells like Dragon’s Breath. Familiars can’t attack, but with help, your little toad can spew acid in a 15-foot cone.

To gain a familiar, select one of these options:

  • Wizard: Learn Find Familiar
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Chain
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Tome and the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation. You get two level 1 rituals, plus the ability to inscribe any class ritual.
  • Bard: Choose the Lore archetype and use the Magical Secrets feature to learn the Find Familiar spell at 6th level. Or at level 10, any bard can use Magical Secrets to learn the spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Magic Initiate feat to get a 1st-level spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Ritual Caster feat to get any ritual spells.

For a more dangerous familiar, play a Pact of the Chain warlock. Warlocks who opt for the Pact of the Chain can choose an imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite as a familiar. These hardly count as animal companions. But unlike animal familiars, these creatures can attack—although after level 9 their bites and stings and tiny arrows amount to little. All these creatures fly and most turn invisible, so they make particularly good spies and spell conduits.

For an unusual mount, play a Beast Master ranger and a small character. Neither a familiar nor a paladin’s steed count as true animals. For a flesh and blood animal companion, opt for the Beast Master ranger archetype.

A small beast master such as a halfling or gnome can ride their medium animal companion as a mount. Ride a wolf for its pack tactics, 40-foot speed, and cool factor. Ride a giant wolf spider for its climb speed, poison bite, and creep factor. Ride a giant poisonous snake for its brazenly phallic implications.

For a partner in battle, play a Beast Master ranger and a creepy, crawly beast. Beast masters’ animal companions earn a reputation for weakness. At level 3, when the companion arrives, the poor beast has merely adequate hit points. As the party levels, the creature will have fewer hit points and worse AC than the wizard, despite having to fight in melee. Meanwhile, the wizard’s familiar makes a better scout.

The Beast Companion class description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4. If you want such a pet, follow Jeremy Crawford’s suggestion and train a creature to be your friend. Or spend a feat learning Find Familiar.

Unfortunately, warm, fuzzy, charismatic beasts like lions, tigers, and bears have size and challenge ratings that disqualify them as animal companions. If you want a furry friend, wolves rank as decent and panthers as adequate. But the very best companions make some folks say ick. For a pet that makes an able battle partner, choose one of these options:

  • A flying snake offers a 60-foot fly speed, flyby attack, and poison damage.
  • A giant crab brings decent AC, Blindsight 30 ft., grappling, and a swim speed. Plus, I understand such companions perform calypso-flavored musical numbers.
  • A giant wolf spider boasts Blindsight 10 ft., a climb speed, and poison.
  • A giant poisonous snake offers Blindsight 10 ft., a swim speed, and poison.

Dungeon masters: As special non-player characters, allow rangers’ animal companions to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points.

With the D&D rules as written, animal companions lack the armor proficiency required to wear barding without suffering disadvantage on attacks, checks, and saves. Nonetheless, I doubt allowing a few extra points of AC breaks anything. Besides, cats in armor look adorable.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 11:15

In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.

While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.

On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.

1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.

2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.

In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.

3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.

4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)

5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.

6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.

7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.

8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.

9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.

Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.

10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.

That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?

Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.

In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”

As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.

I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.

Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?

Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.

Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Secret D&D Games, Sharpshooters, Baby Orcs, and More From the DM David’s Comment Section

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 11:00

Time for another visit to the comment section. At the end, one reader tells a true story of how the Satanic panic drove a group’s Dungeons & Dragons games into secret, and what happened when concerned citizens learned of the underground game.

Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing

In Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing, I contrasted the moral dilemmas that reveal D&D characters against the baby-orc dilemma that dungeon masters should avoid.

Dan wrote, “The thing with the baby monsters from Keep on the Borderlands is that Gary Gygax never intended for the to be a moral dilemma. He assumed that all party members would be agreed on cleaning the place out, paladins included. When asked about it on the Internet in later years, he was somewhat incredulous that it even came up, stating that a properly-played paladin should view justice from a medieval perspective and would take the stance that ‘nits beget lice.’”

Unlike Gary Gygax, today’s players often see humanoids as reflections of humanity. So tarring entire races of humanoids as irredeemably corrupt and worthy of extermination draws troubling parallels to the real treatment of real human groups.

Rasmusnord01 wrote, “I think of three things that can help avoid making the ‘baby-orc issue’ into a problem. (1) Have a leader of the group. In the hands of the right player, a designated leader can help resolve situations and keep the discussion from taking too long. (2) Avoid allowing mercy to come back to bite the players. (3) Make ‘evil’ humanoids more nuanced.”

Teos “alphastream” Abadia wrote, “A friend of mine who used to write for Living Greyhawk said to me once that a great adventure teaches you something about your character. Over the years, that advice has stood the test of time for me. Great adventures help me better see my character’s personality and where they stand, and touch me emotionally or at a visceral level in some way.

“Since that time, I’ve tried to write adventures where decisions (often but not always moral dilemmas) help you understand your character better. Maybe you swap bodies with someone else, so you see yourself from the outside and separate your personality from your frame. Who are you? Maybe you bring a spirit into yourself. What part of that personality do you accept or reject, and what is it displacing? Maybe you face a tough choice. Do you bring a child into battle if that child is an artifact? Do you sacrifice a few to save many? Maybe you have to choose between a sure thing that isn’t so sweet, and worse odds for a chance at something better?”

Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

In Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse, I suggested that framing monsters as natural creatures sometimes stifled the imagination. Lots of readers agreed but reminded me that developing monsters as creatures in nature can also fire the imagination.

“It’s utterly absurd to suggest that natural creatures can’t inspire stories, because they have,” wrote greatwyrmgold. “And only slightly less silly to suggest that magical creatures can be more evocative than natural ones.

“This article presents a false dichotomy between the fantastic and the naturalistic, between the magical and the dull. Creatures can be magical and dull when they pull from the same library of stock monster attributes as every half-arsed fantasy story in the past 60 years, but they can be fantastic and naturalistic with a bit of effort by the author.”

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

An avalanche of comments to Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves noted that Assassins shouldn’t be killing for free and certainly not targeting their allies.

For instance, Carl Torvik wrote, “Assassins may the ONLY evil character you should allow in your campaign. They kill only when hired to kill. They have no reason to attack their party. They come with ready-made attachments to the NPCs and the world (guilds, contacts, associates of former targets, etc.) And they have a reason to want a gang of people around to protect them and occasionally even help them on a difficult hit.”

Alphastream told how, in the 80s, friction between thieves and other evil characters broke up his game.

“In my very first campaigns we had two players where one would play a thief. Before long, he would start stealing from us. The other would then back him up and threaten. It was a source of friction in our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, but when we played Barrier Peaks, it escalated. Three of us tried to stop it and three wanted the freedom to do whatever they pleased. We separated, adventuring separately. That killed the game.

“I can now look back on those events and understand what this was truly about. D&D was for me, as with many players, an escape from the social challenges of my normal life. When evil characters began to push their agenda, our D&D game ceased to become a collaborative escape from the everyday and became again a social challenge to which we had to respond. Bullying was again in my life, as were systems (here, the DM) that failed to make life better.

“The worst problem with evil PCs or thieves stealing from fellow party members isn’t the lost items or even a death. It’s the impact it has on us as individuals, and how it upsets the very reason we came together to play and tell stories. We can introduce aspects that allow for party conflict, but when doing so we should look to find ways to mitigate that at the player level, or the game will suffer.”

Quiiliitiila wrote, “Players who choose to create characters and then play them disruptively are to blame, not the classes. Any player who hides behind the class as a defense for their toxic actions is wrong and probably not suited to play in depth characters in the first place.

“In the end, D&D and AD&D may have started as a simple hack and slash board game, but it evolved into a truly unique role-playing game where you get to experience adventure as a wizard or a cleric or even a blackguard! How you choose to play those characters is up to you, it has never been dictated by the rulebooks or class descriptions.”

Alphastream agreed, but wrote, “As a designer I can choose to write mechanics that either bring people together for collaborative play or cause them to fight each other and disrupt party unity. I know which one I would rather see RPG companies design.

“David’s article is examining how important names and other design elements are for play. They are extremely important. Often more important than we may realize. Any individual player or DM may or may not react to the design, but on the whole we are creating incentives for certain types of play. Assassins might be terrible at one table and not a problem at another, but what is more important is how they play overall. Overall, they caused problems.

“When I design professionally, I’m often doing so for organized play, where I get to see how the design impacts hundreds to thousands of players. I can often see the impacts at a large convention and gain a really fascinating view into how the design works. Incentives that seem unimportant can end up being very important at that macro level. It’s good to go back and examine whether the design is encouraging heroic play, camaraderie, positive escapism, and other elements that routinely are cited by players as reasons to play D&D. Any individual group can always choose otherwise, but the overall design of D&D should point its incentives in that direction, because that’s what D&D is about.”

Alert reader Dan realized that much of this post revisited a five-year-old topic. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to link back to your previous post on the topic instead of copying the first half nearly verbatim, picture included?”

Perhaps, but only about 1% of readers will follow a link to an earlier post. Reviving older posts sometimes helps me offer something every week. Many more folks read this blog now than did five years ago. Since few new readers browse my older posts, an old topic can still find interest.

I want to thank Dan and other dedicated readers who show enough interest in my posts to notice 5-year-old material. Your enthusiasm keeps me writing.

Sarah and Kaitlin Howard pictured with Lolth

Sarah M Howard wrote in to identify herself in the post’s photograph. “The drow priestesses in the picture are Sarah and Kaitlin Howard.” Thanks Sarah. Your costumes and the life-sized Lolth combine for an unforgettable photo.

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

The post Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D brought up THAC0, which led Erïch Jacoby-Hawkins to offer a bit of history.
“Although THAC0 officially became a part of AD&D with the 2nd edition rule books, it was already being incorporated in some of the pre-2nd Edition modules in the mid to late 1980s, for example, modules I9 Day of Al’Akbar and I11 Needle from 1986 & 1987, respectively. I think THAC0 may have appeared in Dragon and Dungeon magazines around that time. The mechanic worked equally well in 1st as 2nd edition, as the AC system didn’t change, and the principle of the to-hit tables remained the same.”

Perhaps I should have included Day of Al’Akbar in The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition. Can anyone identify the first appearance of the term THAC0?

Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History

The post Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History told how the outsized attention and influence of D&D’s earliest adventures elevated their reputation.

Bryce Lynch parsed a word choice in Dungeon magazine’s list of 30 greatest adventures. “I note that the use of the word ‘greatest’ avoids the implication that they are actually good.” Bryce pens a series of entertainingly cranky reviews where he holds adventures to impossibly high standards. His consistently looks for three qualities: “Usability at the table. Interactivity. Evocative.”

The lack of accolades given to more recent adventures led to my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985.

The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985

The author of number 10, The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996), offered more on his classic adventure. Bruce Cordell wrote, “Thanks for the review! Much appreciated. If you’re interested, I wrote about designing the Gates of Firestorm Peak a few months ago, and the associated creation of The Far Realm (which certainly got its name in Gates, but which I further highlighted in later adventures to strengthen its importance).” See http://brucecordell.blogspot.com/2019/03/origin-of-far-realm-in-d.html.

Teos “alphastream” Abadia praised number 6, Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) and recommended a follow up. “I love this adventure, especially in how it showcased how varied 4E adventures could be. I would also mention the prequel, Siege of Gardmore Abbey by Steve Townshend. Here, Steve takes us back in time to when the abbey first fell. It has a strong innovative take on a prequel with a variety of fun encounters built for a convention one-shot. It also has some super-fun pregens, some of which have great conflicts that are revealed during play. It’s amazing design. Siege can be found in Dungeon 210.”

Teos also commented on number 5, Dead Gods (1997). “It’s also worth comparing it to other adventures of it’s time. It’s incredible how often adventures that should be amazing/fantastic (such as nearly every Planescape adventure) manage to be mundane. ‘Sure, you are in Sigil, now here is a guard duty assignment.’ More adventures need to really deliver on high fantasy.

“I liked Vecna Lives for toying with some of those concepts (the opening scene is insane, the advice on running horror is incredible), but it stops short of attaining what it could. Same with Ruins of Castle Greyhawk. In 5E, Dungeon of the Mad Mage has some very strong parts, especially given the source material.”

I admire that even the first-level adventures for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG include big, fantastic elements. Those adventures avoid caravan duty and rats in the cellar.

Responding to my list of The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985, Andrew wrote, “A key to the (good) 5e adventures is the Internet communities and third-party add-ons. By the book Tomb of Annihilation is good but falls apart here and there, but thanks to Facebook groups, Reddit and the great companion PDFs sold you can customize it with great ideas and fix weak bits really easily. Doing that back in the 1e days was quite daunting. Even a great module like Barrier Peaks was nearly impossible for me to run as a kid without any help.”

Wraithmagus challenged my list’s methodology. “I am bewildered why you would create a list like this based on POPULARITY of all things, which is by far the least useful metric. If such a list is going to be useful, surely, they should be overlooked adventures, so that readers can have their attentions drawn to buried gems. Saying ‘Let me tell you about crap you already know about just so everyone can argue about how overrated it is is as unhelpful as it comes.”

Although I did weigh each adventure’s reputation in my ratings, I consider that different from rating popularity. In the end, I cast my own judgement. My ratings won’t match anyone else’s, but a list like this needs to track the opinions of D&D fans closely enough to seem authoritative. As for finding buried gems, many readers had never heard of classics like Dead Gods and Night’s Dark Terror.

In Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985, I considered future lists of great adventures for high levels, from Dungeon magazine, and branded for a campaign setting.

Alphastream suggested some candidates. “The greatest high-level adventures from any era: I have to go with Throne of Bloodstone. While the design in many places is not exceptional, for a 1988 adventure it does a great job of showcasing how a truly awesome high-level plane-spanning adventure can work. It was very enjoyable as the end of my college campaign and took us to level 32-36 in AD&D play!

“The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting: For Dark Sun, Freedom does one of the best jobs at capturing a setting and introduces player well to the momentous events in the boxed set with the fall of Kalak. The same is true of the adventure included in the boxed set, which captures outdoor survival very well. Play those two and you get what Dark Sun is. Compare this to Dragonlance (or later Dark Sun adventures), where you feel like you get a bad version of the novels while the real stars are off doing the cool work.”

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

The post Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes led Thomas Christy to write, “Great article! Check out these amazing maps by Jon Pintar! If I get to run this in the future, they will be great!”

Alphastream recalled playing Q1 in high school. “The dungeon was very so-so. It did feel like a boring zoo or even a boring dungeon until the final level. It was then fantastic. The final battle was brutal. The party had a character with psionics… and Lolth does too. The old psionic combat rules had never been used until then. We looked them up, and basically everything happens in the first segment (part of a round). Party walks into Lolth’s room, psionic character drops dead as Lolth handily wins, and regular combat ensues! That was exciting!”

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, But That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

A few readers responded to Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D by describing the historical superiority of archers.

Todd Ellner wrote, “Think about it in the real world. The horse nomads of Central Asia from the Scythians to the Mongols pretty much swept all before them and replaced the style of warfare wherever they went. The life of the samurai wasn’t ‘The Way of the Sword.’ It was ‘The way of the Horse and Bow.’ Missile weapons are that much of a game-changer.”

Although I like the historical perspective, D&D isn’t history, but a game where characters do fantastic deeds for the fun of players. A focus on fun leads designers like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to favor unrealistic, but fun things like hit points over realistic, not-fun things like sepsis and sucking chest wounds. Fifth edition pairs the intrinsic advantages of ranged attacks with the game’s two most overpowered feats to encourage situations where the sharpshooter player has fun and everyone else wonders why they showed up.

Some commenters raised the canard that archers tend to be “squishy,” lightly armored and vulnerable to attack. In this edition, fully-armored fighters also make the most efficient sharpshooters.

Some compared the damage dealing of sharpshooters to spellcasters. Certainly, spellcasters can shine for their ability to clear hordes of foes and for their utility. But most spellcasters really are squishy, and their spell slots force players to watch their resources.

Some cited certain melee fighting styles that can approach the damage output of sharpshooters. But melee types foster interesting fights because they stand in harm’s way and must move to attack. Meanwhile, monsters can surround their boss with enough protection for the mastermind to act before the barbarian can cut a path. Sharpshooters just turn potentially interesting encounters into point, shoot, and now it’s over.

Readers who see the trouble with sharpshooters offered advice to managing the archetype.

LordJasper wrote, “Start enforcing ammunition tracking. A lot of DMs let players get away with ‘forgetting’ to track their arrows and crossbow bolts. Make archers keep track of every bolt they fire.” The limit comes when archers capable of emptying a quiver in just a few rounds need to carry every missile.

Unfortunately, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Dungeon masters who rule otherwise will UNFAIRLY DESTROY an entire character concept—or so players will say.

“This is where game mechanics poorly reflects reality,” Jason Oldham wrote. “Drawing on personal experience, an average quiver MIGHT hold 20 arrows. They are bulky and need to be packaged with at least some consideration for the delicate bits. Bolts are slightly more accommodating but only slightly. I personally enforce some rather strict house rules as far as how much a player can pack around and how readily accessible equipment may be. But that’s just me, I like to make my players suffer just a little bit.”

Some readers suggested spells that hinder archers.

Oniguma wrote, “I’ve found one little, often overlooked spell that does wonders to diminish the potential of ranged attackers: Slow.”

Sapphire Crook elaborated. “Slow is a rare spell that doesn’t require sight. You just pick six targets in a pretty large cube, and they have to pick a god and pray. Fireball can kill, but Slow can save lives.”

Eric Bohm suggested Wind Wall. “‘Arrows, bolts, and other ordinary projectiles launched at targets behind the wall automatically miss.’ I don’t like using it because it is such a hard shut down, but it is useful for letting the rest of the party contribute.”

The prospect of using Wind Wall against a party dominated by archers excites me. Still, many commenters blamed any trouble with sharpshooters on DMs who fail to prepare custom encounters to thwart the archetype. I prefer to avoid D&D games where the players bring scissors, and then the DM always prepares rocks. That approach creates an adversarial dynamic and robs the game of variety. DMs who run Adventurers League can add total cover, monsters, and hit points as I suggested in the post, but we can’t remake adventures to vex archers.

Number Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map

In response to my advice that DMs number monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map, Scott suggested using a 3D printer to make numbered bases that cup miniature figures.

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

My post on The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character) ranked the popularity of D&D’s feats.

The relatively low popularity of Resilience surprised some commenters. For spellcasters who try to stay clear of attack, Resilience (Constitution) beats the most popular feat, War Caster. By the way, according to the letter of D&D rules, if you take Resilience for one stat, you can’t take it again for a second, different ability.

The popularity rankings of feats invited comparisons to each feat’s actual power. Thinkdm wrote, “Here’s some poll results I ran to break them down into tiers. You see the ‘broken’ feats aren’t even the most popular. Likely because they are suited to specific play styles. But, it’s still interesting.”

Little-known D&D classics: Fez

In reply to Little-known D&D classics: Fez, Matt wrote, “I’ve never been to Gen Con, and in fact only came to AD&D when I was in middle school in the early 1990s. I found the Fez adventures about ten years ago when I was combing Amazon for out-of-print, non-Wizards of the Coast, and pre-d20 game materials.

“They immediately changed my world.

“I would spend the next decade reading, absorbing, and preparing to run Fez with my own group of gamers whose frame of reference for D&D only begins around the year 2000 or so. I’m happy to report that we finished the first Fez adventure back in May, and I’m preparing to go into Fez II, which is really the best in the series, in defiance of the law of sequels.

“When I ran Fez I, I modified the game to accommodate some of their expectations: The players saw their characters’ stats, but they began as amnesiacs. Still, even with that change, the Fez formula engaged them immediately.”

“Fez has become one of our most memorable adventures. I highly recommend that anyone out there with a gaming group pick up these gaming classics and run them.”

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods prompted a funny exchange.

Joel Orsatti: “Any idea why the Finnish mythos was dropped?”

Brent Butler: “They may have simply run out of K’s.”

More likely, TSR dropped the mythos to fit the abbreviated book within a smaller number of signatures—groups of pages printed together.

The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

In The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America, I explained why Gen Con in the 80s came to ban live-action games, and the change in attitude since. Spoiler: Today, some folks accept that playing D&D can prove beneficial.

Alphastream (again. Thanks, Teos!) wrote, “I wish I had a screen shot of an old post on the Wizards of the Coast forums by Mike Mearls during the 4E era. 4E era, mind you! That’s long after this event. In it, he briefly mentioned that when WotC was looking at the design for 4E organized play, there was a push to eliminate LARP and town-fair style play. It was due to the effect it has on the perception of the game.

“I mention this not because I think WotC was necessarily wrong. (Okay, they were, but they were trying to gain acceptance for the game.) I mention it because LARPing was still seen as problematic as recently as 4E. And, because it is ironic that what has helped RPGs become mainstream during the 5E period is acting, both on livestreams and in media (Stranger Things, etc.). It is now very welcome to have people in costume, and WotC staff get in costume for livestreams and big events such as the Descent marketing event. It’s a remarkable change that has come only very recently.”

Timothy Park shared his positive tale of clear-headed parents, pastors, and teachers seeing the game’s value and encouraging play.

“There were a great many people using their intelligence and common sense and noticing and saying good things about D&D. They and their reasonable perspective won out. If it hadn’t, well, would you have this blog?”

“That story, the positive side, needs more press than the sensational bits.”

As for the sensational bits, I finish this post by relaying the account from chacochicken.

My hometown was a regular hotbed of D&D and Satanic panic. In fact, the dangers of D&D was still a contentious point there until not that long ago.

I come from a small town in rural West Virginia. Evangelicalism had completely overtaken the town in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandparents moved there in 1952 and were not church going types. Strike one. My mom was an unwed mother. Strike two. My uncle got the Holmes basic set while he was in the navy and introduced my friends and I to the game. Strike two and half. It was an open secret that my navy vet uncle was gay. Strike Five.

To set the scene, it was summer 1986 and my friends and I (fortunately most kids don’t care much about the above nonsense) played a ton of D&D, but we had to keep it a complete secret from basically everyone. Our town was small enough that everyone mostly knew everyone’s business. A ring of people were in charge. The bank manager was the pastor. The pastor’s brother was the county sheriff and the high school baseball coach. Nepotism all the way down. Well these folks decided that they were going to control the behavior of the whole town more or less.

So we played that summer. A few other kids knew but none of our parents at that point. We were known to have played before, see above uncle, so everyone was wary of us. My friend Dustin, yes his name was Dustin, his parents ransacked his room and found his character sheets, dice, and some D&D ads torn our from his comic books. I’m not exaggerating, they burned all of his toys, all of them, on the front yard as he basically had a nervous breakdown. He was not allowed to speak to us again and they couldn’t risk us meeting at school so the next year he was home-schooled.

We were torn as to whether to play anymore or not because we were afraid of the possibility of punishment. Our defiance won out and we kept playing in the loft of an old barn next to my uncle’s house. He vouched for us playing regular old board games, fishing, and running around in the woods.

Then terror struck. A dog went missing somewhere close. Then a second. Then an older man “disappeared.” People went crazy. “It was Satanists!” The Panic hit full bore. The school confiscated anything to do with heavy metal music. Prayers before baseball games asking for protection against the devil worshippers that invaded our town. D&D was the primary suspect.

To be fair, as kids, we were scared too. We just knew D&D didn’t have anything to do with it. My uncle reassured us that most of the town were a bunch of crazy backwards hillbillies. He wasn’t wrong. He made a critical mistake however. I’ll never forget what happened on August 2nd 1986, a Saturday. My uncle threw a big BBQ for some of his navy buddies. We were invited to so we got some food and headed over to our barn for D&D by lantern light. My drunk uncle let slip to a friend’s wife that we were playing the devil’s game and she called her father, the aforementioned county sheriff.

We were right in the middle of the game when the sheriff and four deputies arrested us at gun point. They pointed guns at 5 kids playing a game. They were sure we were a Satanic cult cell. They put three of us in one car and two in the other. The entire drive they kept asking us about Satanism and if we killed the dogs. They didn’t take us to our parents or the police station, they took us to the church so the sheriff’s brother could rebuke us while we were in handcuffs. It was completely insane. There were 5 of us and we were all terrified except for my friend Nathan, who thought this was hilarious. His laughing and mocking the pastor helped a ton actually. We got our wits back and demanded to see our parents and told them they had just kidnapped us and we were going to call the FBI.

The sheriff took us home after that with a stern warning and a veiled threat asking me and my friends if my uncle had ever touched any of us. The next day my mom filed a formal complaint and my friend Matt’s father challenged the sheriff to a fist fight. He did not accept. The old man that “disappeared” wasn’t dead. He was on vacation in Maine or some such that summer. One or both dogs were found. We took a break from D&D for a while, but picked it back up when the Forgotten Realms grey box came out the next year. The pastor finally died in 2012 and the newer younger pastor now let’s kids play D&D other TTRPGs and board games in the church annex on Thursday nights.

So that’s the story of how D&D destroyed the brains of the people of my town for two decades because of the the media furor.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Reveal a Dungeon Map on an iPad as Characters Explore

Tue, 08/20/2019 - 11:15

Mapping rates as one of the chores in the original Dungeons & Dragons game that players learned to skip. In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. Map-keeping dominated play as much as combat. In the original example of play, the dungeon master spends half the game reciting dimensions. Although a few exceptional folks enjoy mapping, count me out.

Still, a map offers players a visual picture of a dungeon and the characters’ place. You are here. With a map, players can see explored and unexplored areas, and sites worth revisiting. In small dungeons, as characters move, I often draw or uncover a ready map. In a dungeon as big as Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage or the Tomb of Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation, mapping the sprawl during the game would tax players’ patience.

So for Undermountain, I devised a way to load the maps into my iPad and reveal the map as players explored. The trick worked. The tablet proved big enough to see on the table and revealing worked faster than drawing. If the game room had a television, I would have connected the screen and had a bigger visual. That requires a Lightning to Digital AV Adapter.

For my process, I used the $4.99 app Procreate, but every drawing app supports the features for this trick. For precise erasing, an Apple Pencil works best, but a fingertip will suffice.

How to reveal a dungeon map on an iPad as characters explore.

To load the dungeon map and conceal it, do these steps:

  1. Take a photo of the map or upload a map image to iCloud Photos.

  2. In Procreate, tap Photo, and then select the map’s image from the collection.

  3. Select a color for fill that will conceal the map by tapping the colored dot in the upper-right corner.

  4. Add a layer by tapping the Layers button, and then the + sign.
    Result: A new layer named “Layer 2” appears in the list.

  1. Tap Layer 2 and select Fill Layer from the list that appears.
    Result: Color fills Layer 2.

To erase the concealment, do these steps:

  1. Tap the eraser twice, and then select Airbrushing and Hard Airbrush.

  2. Move the Opacity slider on the left of the screen to maximum.

  3. Touch the map to erase concealment and reveal parts of the map.

The upper slider on the left adjusts the size of eraser.

If you erase too much, use the undo button on the left.

To annotate the map, create another layer, change the color and pen, and then write.

Related: Mapping—or not-fun things that Dungeons & Dragons players learned to skip

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs