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Updated: 5 hours 37 min ago

Never Have Monsters Make Checks—Just Let the Players Roll

Wed, 05/01/2024 - 10:59

Dungeons & Dragons started with slightly different rules for monsters and player characters. In the dungeon, doors that players left open always swung shut, but “doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut.” Mostly though, the same rules applied to heroes and monsters, a carryover from the game’s wargame roots. In the wargames that led to D&D, players competed to win, while the game master—the referee—just interpreted the rules. Even in early D&D games, players sometimes battled each other in the race for treasure.

By D&D’s third edition, the game’s symmetry reached a peak. The game rules served as the physics of the game world. A monster’s statistics built from the same rules that applied to player characters. By sharing a rules foundation for characters and creatures, the third edition opened customization options like feats and class levels to monsters.

More recent editions loosen this symmetry, so monsters no longer work like characters. Why should they? Monsters serve a different purpose and rarely survive longer than five rounds. Nonetheless, characters and non-player characters follow identical game physics of d20 tests and DCs during play.

But some roleplaying games break this symmetry so that for non-player characters, the game master makes different rolls or no rolls.

Players enjoy rolling dice. In D&D, that makes attacking more fun than casting spells like sacred flame where the DM gets to roll a save. Rules like the Cypher System used by Numenera and The Black Hack variant of original D&D have players roll to determine the outcome both when they attack and when they get attacked. Monsters skip attack rolls in favor of players making defense rolls to avoid hits. Some games feature even bigger differences between the mechanics for players and game masters. In the Daggerheart roleplaying game, monsters attack with a simple d20 roll instead of the more complicated 2d12 Duality roll reserved for players. Only player rolls produce Hope and Fear.

D&D’s symmetrical system of saving throws and attack rolls has proved too entrenched to swap monster attacks for defense checks. But some symmetry in the game seems more ready for elimination. Start with contests.

In my ten years playing hundreds of fifth edition games, I played exactly one contest. It came when an intellect devourer did its thing: “The intellect devourer initiates an Intelligence contest with an incapacitated humanoid.” A few other monsters like nothics and poltergeists also start contents. Why don’t these creatures’ targets just make saving throws instead? Sure, the numbers work a bit differently, especially because contests can skip proficiency or use different proficiencies, but usually when players try to avoid harm, they just roll saves. The fifth edition design typically favors consistency over fussy exceptions.

Despite the rarity of contests, characters match their abilities against monsters’ abilities all the time. Mainly, the rules distill common match ups to a single check. This simplification comes most often when a creature hides. “The DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side.” Instead of rolling both abilities in a contest, the check’s DC comes from adding 10 to a Wisdom (Perception) modifier.

This D&D rule benefits from a change that adds a dash of asymmetry so that players always make these checks. Players like to roll dice, especially when the roll decides their character’s fate. If a PC hides, the player rolls a Dexterity (Stealth) check against a DC set by the monster’s perception; if a monster hides, the player rolls a Wisdom (Perception) check against a DC set by the monster’s stealth plus 10. Tales of the Valiant takes this approach. Monsters get stealth and perception DCs for players to roll against.

D&D includes lots of creatures proficient in Stealth. When these creatures can ambush, they show the traits that make them more interesting than a claw/claw/bite sequence. When monsters attempt to ambush a party, the stealth DC toolkit works. Set a DC based on the ambusher’s stealth score and add a +5 to account for the advantage of advanced preparation. When the time comes for the monsters to spring, have all the players roll Wisdom (Perception) attacks. Those who succeed avoid becoming surprised.

The technique of adding 10 to a modifier to set a DC can replace any contest. Players always roll and their opposition always sets the DC. If the opposition has advantage or disadvantage, modify the DC by another +5 or -5.

Contests offer different odds than ordinary checks. A contest’s two dice gives bigger swings in the range of outcomes. So, with lucky rolls, a creature with no bonus can win a contest against someone with a +11 modifier. When that +11 adds up to a DC 21, a check with no bonus always fails. How often does such a large mismatch appear in play?

Also, the average roll on a d20 is 10.5 rather than 10 and rolls that tie the DC go to the person rolling. Both these factors give a little edge to roller, improving their odds in an even match. But D&D plays at kitchen tables rather than at casino tables. In play, a 1-in-20 edge and a rounding error that adds 2.5% hardly matters. Also, we could adjust the DC to offset the edge or ignore it. When players make the rolls and gain the edge, they have no reason to quibble.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Daggerheart vs. the MCDM RPG vs. D&D: A Playtest Comparison

Mon, 04/01/2024 - 11:26

If games to suit every play style and new games bringing fresh ideas makes a golden age, then the best time for gamers is now. In the past weeks, I’ve played preview releases of two upcoming games: the MCDM RPG championed by Matt Colville with lead designer James Introcaso, and the Daggerheart RPG championed by Matt Mercer with lead designer Spenser Starke. Both games play in the same genre and style as D&D, but each aims to prove more fun for certain styles of play. The MCDM RPG seeks to recreate some of the tactical play exemplified by fourth edition D&D in fast-paced, cinematic battles. Daggerheart targets a more narrative, rules-light style that fosters heroic moments and chances for players to reveal their characters.

Core mechanics

The core mechanics of these games target 3 common gripes about the core mechanic of D&D.

  • A lack of degrees of success or failure limits the potential outcomes of a check.
  • Players experience a feel-bad moment when they miss and lose their opportunity to do something interesting on their turn.
  • The swinginess of D&D’s d20 mechanic, which can make experts look inept and zeros look like heroes.
Degrees of success

In Daggerheart’s core mechanic, players roll a pair of 12-sided dice and add the numbers. If the total exceeds a target number, then the roll succeeds. Aside from the different dice, this resembles a d20 check, but Daggerheart adds a twist. One of the d12s is marked as the Hope die and the other the Fear die. The die that rolls higher adds Hope or Fear to the result. Whether or not a roll succeeds, a roll with Hope brings a boost in the form of a Hope token players can spend to benefit their character. A roll with Fear brings complications, potentially success at a price. The game master gains a fear token they can spend to make the character’s predicament more difficult. Hope and Fear create a range of heroic moments and setbacks that players and game masters can use to inspire storytelling.

Games with such success-with-complications, fail-forward mechanics weigh game masters with the extra creative burden of improvising complications to pair with success. For combat rolls though, Daggerheart gives GMs who gain Fear a menu of complications to select. The first complication is that players lose initiative, something this post will discuss later.

The MCDM RPG bakes degrees of success into the game’s power roll mechanic. The higher the sum of 2d6, the better the degree. They even have names for the degrees: tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3. Perhaps they considered reaching to older games like Marvel Super Heroes for tier names like good, excellent, and remarkable, but for one type of rolls tier 1 means a small success, and for another type, tier 1 means failure. The game features two types of power rolls: ability rolls, which correspond to D&D’s attack rolls, and tests, which correspond to D&D’s ability checks. Ability rolls don’t have a chance of failure, which leads to the second common gripe levelled at the D&D’s core d20 mechanic.

No missed attacks

The MCDM RPG tries to eliminate the down moments when a player misses an attack and wastes their turn. All ability rolls succeed, with an outcome that determines a degree of success and sets an amount of damage. Without damage rolls, the system plays faster. No one likes to lose a turn to a miss, but in play I found that the lack of failure in attack rolls made combat feel less compelling. The reason comes down to something psychologists call intermittent reinforcement where a behavior like rolling attacks earns inconsistent and unpredictable rewards. Intermittent reinforcement built the casinos along the Las Vegas Strip and it’s why no one would play a slot machine that returns exactly $0.97 every time you drop a dollar. To be fair, the version of the MCDM RPG I played used a different combat mechanic where players just rolled damage, so even the biggest roll on a formula like 2d6+6 yielded just 5 more points than average. The new mechanic allows bigger results for big rolls and undoubtedly plays better.

Swingy d20s

Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart adopt core mechanics that have players rolling two dice and summing the total. In the MCDM RPG it’s 2d6; in Daggerheart it’s 2d12. Both games have a good reason to avoid the single d20 roll in D&D. When you roll 2 dice and sum the results, numbers in the middle become much more common, creating a bell curve. When you roll just one 20-sided die, extreme results prove just as common as average results. That leads to the sort of wacky outcomes that frequently seen in D&D games where the mighty thewed barbarian slams into the door, rolls a 2, and bounces off. Next, the pencil-necked gnome wizard kicks the door, rolls an 18 and it crashes open. With a d20 roll, the roll swamps the influence of a character’s abilities. Some d20 games try to reward expert characters by giving them very high modifiers. A character with something a +15 skill bonus stands out from one with no bonus, but then to challenge that character, GMs need difficulty classes like 30, which become completely unreachable for most characters. So high-level adventures start including impossible obstacles for parties that lack the right sort of character. (See Why D&D’s d20 Tests Make Experts Look Inept and How to Make the Best of It.)

By adding two die rolls to get a bell curve of results, expert characters start to feel like experts who reliably succeed, and average characters need extraordinary luck to accomplish difficult tasks. All that happens without forcing the game to set difficulties that make tasks impossible for average characters.

Advantage and disadvantage.

Gamers love how fifth edition’s advantage and disadvantage mechanic streamlines all the fiddly +1 and +2 modifiers included in earlier editions of the game. The new edition also removes past rules for how these modifiers stack. Instead, advantage and disadvantage provide a simple, compelling alternative. It’s a blunt adjustment, but considering how swingy d20 rolls are anyway, the coarse mechanic hardly seems to matter in play.

To me, and apparently to the designers of the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart, the worst part of advantage and disadvantage stems from how it never stacks. If a character has a consistent way of gaining advantage, other decisions, tactics and character traits that grant advantage stop mattering. The game feels flat. This is why cover—an easy advantage to consistently gain—typically imposes a -2 penalty rather than imposing disadvantage on attackers.

In Daggerheart, advantage and disadvantage don’t entirely wash out. If a character has two sources of advantage and one source of disadvantage, they still gain one advantage die. Because of the 2d12 bell curve, small modifiers make bigger differences, so advantage means just rolling an extra d6 and adding the results.

In the MCDM RPG, the 2d6 rolls provide an even narrower range of numbers, so the design team settled on modifying the roll with up to two edges of + 1 or two banes of –1. That feels less exciting than rolling extra dice, but it worked best in testing.

Initiative

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG attempt to improve on D&D’s cyclical initiative system.

In the MCDM RPG, characters can go in any order as decided by their players. The game master takes a turn after each of the character’s turns. In D&D, when a solo monster rolls a poor initiative, the entire party gets to unleash their best spells and attacks first, potentially turning an exciting fight into a quick execution. The MCDM RPG’s alternating initiative prevents such a letdown while providing a more consistent experience.

Daggerheart goes for a looser system that feels even more freewheeling and narrative. Players can take a turn whenever they like. One player can even take multiple turns in a row. I suspect the designers intend to enable heroic moments where characters can string actions into sequences that feel cinematic without the game’s turn order interrupting each moment with 10 minutes of everyone else’s turns.

This goal doesn’t always happen, because a roll with Fear gives the next turn to the GM, but with a bit of luck the game can unlock cinematic, heroic moments.

Naturally, some gamers worry that such a loose system will encourage players to hog the spotlight, and certainly that fear seems valid. I’ve played games where one player with the party’s best interests at heart tried to help us “win” by dominating the action like a superior basketball player might try to help the team by taking every shot.

Still, D&D became a better game when designers stopped trying to fix obnoxious players. Most players strive to share the spotlight. However, the real trouble is that both MCDM and Daggerheart’s systems threaten to slow the game’s pace during combat.

Before third edition, most D&D groups used side initiative, so the party and the DM each rolled a die and the side with the best roll went first. During a party’s initiative, they decided the characters’ turns to act. Most tables rolled initiative every round, and that added some exciting uncertainly, but all this added friction. Third edition’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet says, “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

The third-edition team decided to try a rule that originated in some West Coast D&D variants like the Warlock rules devised at Caltech and the Perrin Conventions created by future Runequest designer and D&D contributor Steve Perrin. That variant was cyclical initiative where everyone rolls to establish an order and the order stays the same throughout the fight. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.”

Fifth edition’s initiative system removes decision making to make play faster. Unlike in past editions, players can’t even delay their turns. The designers imposed this restriction to speed the pace of combat.

Designer Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

Combat escalation

In D&D, major battles typically start with characters unleashing their most powerful spells and abilities, sometimes turning a climactic showdown into an anticlimactic beat down. But if the foes survive and the fight wears on, depleted characters start grinding with basic attacks. Instead of rising excitement, the game sputters. Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart give characters resources that can replenish or even increase during combat. In the MCDM RPG, various heroic resources like rage can increase; in Daggerheart Hope can increase. Especially in the MCDM RPG, this helps create a sense of escalating action in battles. Meanwhile, a growing stack of Fear tokens can lead to a growing sense of peril.

The MCDM RPG even adds a resource called victories that makes characters stronger as they press on during an adventuring day. Instead of encouraging a 5-minute adventuring day, the system encourages players to test their limits like real heroes.

Resolution transparency

When I played Daggerheart, my character Garrick included a feature that seemed intended to foster looser, more narrative play. His battle strategist feature made him especially good at combat maneuvers like shoves, grapples, and trips. However, the playtest lacks any rules for these sorts of maneuvers. Perhaps I’m shackled to an outdated mindset, but I feel more comfortable playing in a system where I understand how my character’s actions will be resolved. If every use of an ability means that the GM and I must improvise a fair way to resolve the action, then I’m inclined to skip delaying the game for that discussion.

Ability scores

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG use ability scores that parallel the scores used in D&D. Both systems take advantage of their clean-sheet designs to replace some of the scores’ names with more suitable terms. For example, both systems replace Charisma with Presence, a term that removes the implication of comeliness, leaving just force of personality. Daggerheart makes another interesting revision. It replaces Dexterity with two scores: Agility and Finesse. In D&D, Dexterity proves too valuable, so players build quick characters and the PCs in play show less variety. By turning Dexterity into two scores, Daggerheart gives each score a more equal value in the game. Daggerheart drops another score that D&D makes too valuable: Constitution. Every D&D character is alike in boasting a stout Constitution, and that means the score does little to make characters distinct. Instead, in Daggerheart, a character’s hit points mainly depend on their class.

Death

D&D makes dropping to zero hit points easy but dying—except at first level—nearly impossible. This makes difficult battles into unintentionally comical scenes where characters keep flopping to the ground, presumably at death’s door, only to be repeatedly revived. The rules even inspire a counterintuitive strategy where a player might refuse to heal friends until they lay dying because damage below 0 heals for free. This robs any sense of peril from going near death. Players with a dying character worry more about losing a turn than losing a character. If no one bothers to pour a potion in your character’s mouth, then rolling a death save instead of taking an action provides D&D’s ultimate feel-bad moment.

When a D&D character defies the odds and really dies, the game tends to make the big moment into the anticlimactic result of a series of lost turns and bad death saves. We want characters to die in heroic blazes of glory that feel cinematic rather than by bleeding out into the dirt.

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG introduce rules for death and dying that vastly improve on D&D by giving characters a shot at a heroic finale.

In the MCDM RPG, a character with 0 or less Health becomes unbalanced. They can still act but most actions cost them 5 more Health. If the negative Health value reaches half their Health maximum value, they die. This challenges players to decide how much they wish to press their luck. Should a character risk a blaze of glory or shrink back to safety? Characters die because they dared for glory.

Daggerheart gives characters with no hit points a choice of death moves:

  • They can take an action, gain an automatic critical success, and then die.
  • They can risk their lives on a die roll. If they roll Hope, they regain Hit Points; if the roll Fear, they die.
  • They can drop unconscious and “work with the GM to describe how the situation gets much worse.” This option risks permanently reducing your character’s capacity for Hope by one. New Characters can accumulate up to 5 Hope tokens. If that capacity ever drops to 0, the hopeless character must end their journey.

When designers create D&D’s sixth edition, they should look to Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG for inspiration, but until then these rules count as the best ideas to steal for your game.

Durable first level characters

In D&D, first level characters are a durable as soap bubbles, so new players typically enter the game at its most dangerous. New players who lose characters often have a bad play experience and decide D&D isn’t the game for them. They might be wrong, but they walk away anyway. Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart make new characters durable, a feature that D&D gained with fourth edition and lost with fifth. If you’re listening to me now, you might be a D&D enthusiast who lost characters in their first game and kept playing, so you might argue that I am making a problem out of nothing, but that’s survival bias that ignores all the potential fans who quit because their characters died during their first session. None of those folks are reading this post now.

As for my first games of the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart, both games left me ready for more.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs