Archive for May, 2012

On Dissociated Mechanics

Posted: 31 May 2012 in Game Structure
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This is not a post by me; this is simply to redirect you to this rather brilliant article on The Alexandrian about Dissociated Mechanics, and their use and misuse in Role Playing Games.  This is particularly pertinent to me because (1) dissociated mechanics and an understanding of them are what propelled me from 4th edition (which drew me into D&D) and into the arms of Pathfinder and OSR; (2) this blog is about tools that can be used by Players and (especially) DMs to enhance role playing, and those tools need to take dissociation into consideration; and (3) as we’re collectively going over D&D 5E it is imperative that we understand dissociative mechanics because that was the great failing of 4th Edition and we need to make sure 5th doesn’t carry forward the same or similar mistakes.

While I’m still slowly going through the 5E playtest materials, I’ve been looking around at what other people have to say about it.  Reading a couple of posts on The Alexandrian and Blog of Holding, it strikes me that 5E seems to be highlighting a misunderstanding by the system of the Wisdom attribute.

There are two things that 5E is doing that spotlights the problem, but I don’t think 5E is introducing the problem: it’s just making clear a problem that we’ve all been living with for years, though it’s been masked.  First,5E is dropping the triumvirate of 3E saving throws, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  Instead, saves are made directly based on attributes.  You’ll make Strength saves and Dexterity saves and Charisma saves, and so on.  I’m not exactly sure what an Intelligence Save might look like (the materials say “against spells that try to overcome your intellect, but I’m not sure what they mean) but it’s in there.

The Alexandrian is tentatively supportive of this change (as am I), but notes that it might introduce the old hierarchy of saves issue.  It used to be you saves were based on what a thing you were avoiding was (death, dragonfire, ray), and later it was based on how you avoid the thing (jump out of the way, take the hit and power through, resist with your will).  But there was a question on what Save to use if a thing fell in to multiple categories (a ray of death, or something you can dodge or resist with will) — do you use the best save, or the worst save, or just whatever save the DM cares to call for?  This was relieved a little bit in 3E, I think, but in 5E it looks like both Wisdom and Charisma are fighting over the same turf.  Wisdom saves are supposed to be used to resist being charmed or influenced (and it’s noted that both Command and Charm Person call for Wisdom saves), but Charisma saves are supposed to be used to resist  “magical compulsions.”

The second point is 5E seems to be tossing away the idea of skills, generally.  I may have misread it, but is you want to bust down a door you roll a Strength check, if you want to tumble to safety you roll a Dexterity check, if you want to search the room for traps you make a Wisdom check, and so on. Some character options give a bonus to certain actions (the Rogue character does note +3 to “open Locks”), and maybe there’s a more-robust skill system than we’re seeing here.  But from the looks of it, if you want to be good at finding secret doors, you bump up your Wisdom.

Blog of Holding notes that this highlights the odd position we find ourselves in when the Cleric (who’s whole schtick is based off Wisdom) is better at finding things than the Ranger, Rogue, or Barbarian (if you accept “feral awareness” or “aggression-fueled blindness”).  In 3E this issue was masked by the fact that skill points and Class training could make up for a poor Wisdom, but all things being equal a Cleric would have higher Perception because it was based on his key stat.  He goes on to suggest moving Perception in to Dexterity not because it makes any sense but because then the classes we expect to be perceptive (Rangers, Rogues) would have it keyed to their attribute of choice.

Frankly, I think that’s just silly.  Blog of Holding claims that Perception doesn’t really fit under any of the 6 attributes and while there might be an argument for that the description of Wisdom says it represents “common sense, awareness, and intuition.”  I this that’s something of a perfect fit for Perception.  Definitely better than an attribute representing manual dexterity and agility.

The problem in both cases is one little word in the description of Wisdom: “Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, awareness, and intuition.”  One of these is not like the others; one of these just doesn’t belong.  And in fact, I think the place that “willpower” does belong is under Charisma: “Charisma measures a character’s personality, personal magnetism, ability to lead” (the 5E text says “ability to influence others and strength of personality”).  Both of those lines were taken from the Pathfinder SRD, and I’m pretty sure it meshes with the 3E SRD as well.

So my solution is thus: move Willpower in to Charisma, with “strength of personality,” where it belongs. Make Wisdom a stat of pure awareness and intuition so it isn’t fighting with Charisma any more.  And adjust Clerics so that their magic is based off of Charisma (like 4E Paladins), representing the strong personality and will necessary to draw the power and favor of the gods (bonus: Clerics are now best able to draw followers). It cleans everything up just by dropping one word.

So before the hex crawl that I did this weekend, I started working on a few of projects that should become posts when they’re done.  Turns out that there’s a bit more effort involved than I expected, especially since I didn’t touch any of it over the long weekend.

The first bit I’m working on is trying to address the issue of feats.  So far I’ve gone through the Pathfinder SRD and binned the feats into Tiers based on how many feat prerequisites they have — this roughly translates to “what is the earliest level this feat could be taken,” but not entirely (I haven’t accounted for Base Attack Bonus or Level requirements, for example).  even at that, easily half of the feats are simply unavailable to a 1st level character, and a good chunk are unavailable before 4th level.

The second bit is a review of the 5th Edition playtest materials that got released.  Other people are already going over their first impressions — The Alexandrian made a couple of comments that hadn’t occurred to me, such as “how much of an improvement on 3rd Edition can we expect” and the possibility of an infestation of disassociated mechanics.  I’ve only gone over the “How to Play” packet and skimmed the others; my initial thoughts are positive, but there are a few things I’m unsure about.  I may get my players to try to run through the playtest adventure with me this weekend and maybe that’ll help inform my opinion.

Finally, I’ve been toying with the idea of reducing character creation to a high-density blurb. It’s not a final solution and doesn’t produce a completed character but I think it should distill the necessary choices a player needs to make, and that will hopefully speed up character creation.  I think as it is it might only work for 1st level characters, and even at that some of my players have pointed out that I may have blind spots where my own expertise with the system makes things more intuitive for me than they are for others.

This weekend, my brothers and I got together for the long weekend and I took the opportunity to try my hand at a hexcrawl game.  We had limited time to work with, so I told them to keep it basic and make characters with whatever background they wanted, as long as it gets them to this town looking for adventure in the wilderness.  The game itself was essentially the same idea as the Western Marches campaign I’ve heard about, though I’ve never read up on it specifically.  Adventure is to the west, retirement is to the east, and in the middle is a town you can spend your money at, brag about your adventures, and prepare for new ones.

Setting up the game took a lot of work on my part.  It’s the kind of work that’s done once and can be used over and over again, but as this was my first game it all had to be taken care of.  I used Hexographer to build my map, following the guidelines of Welsh Piper. I really wanted to use the one-page hexcrawl encounter system from Roles, Rules, and Rolls, but I didn’t have the time to hand-key even a significant portion of my hexmap, and I wanted to incorporate non-combat encounters. So instead I used a multi-table setup recommended by Pencils and Papers — I had a d20 table to determined if there was an encounter and what type, and then sub-tables for Combat, Location, Sub-Quest, and Special encounters.

Making those random tables took the bulk of my effort.  The Welsh Piper guidelines make building a hexmap really easy, and the Pathfinder core rules have a lot of information for how to put together encounters (so my Combat table had entries like “2d4+1 Goblin Warriors”), but I haven’t really found any good advice or suggestions on what a Random Encounter table should look like, especially not for non-Combat encounters.  Sub-Quests were probably the hardest, but possibly because (for time’s sake) I was restricting myself to one-line hooks.  “Lay the Dead to Rest,” “Explore the Ruins,” “Stop the Mad Wizard.”  This also kept it general enough that I could build details around them during play, so that no two “Stop the Mad Wizard” quests necessarily felt similar, let along the same.

After all that I found that there were a few systems I wanted to have that I didn’t have any good notion for.  How to move around the map was pretty easy: I remembered reading a post on Pencils and Papers about movement points and went off what I remembered from there.  My group had a Dwarf so their speed was 24 miles in a day, so they got 24 “movement points” to spend.  I kind of wish I’d thought to look over that post again before playing, though — I gave plains a move-cost of 5 and pretty much everything else a move-cost of 10 and i like the better granularity that P&P offered (which I guess he inherited from Brendan – who was riffing off Delta? I kind of love all the cross-pollination I’m finding). Anyways, I decided that you paid the Movement cost when you tried to leave a Hex.  I rolled for an Encounter whenever the group entered a Hex, and they could pay half the exit-cost to “search” the Hex and get another encounter roll.

Two systems I didn’t have that I wanted were a method for getting lost (and a similar method for finding your way again) and a system for foraging.  The latter, foraging, got preempted at the table by going with Pathfinder’s rules on the subject from the Survival skill (though I did vary DC based on terrain).  The Alexandrian hinted at what sounds like a really great hexcrawl system that included a mechanism for getting lost, but as far as I can tell he’s never posted the details.  The P&P/Brendan/Delta posts have a notion of getting lost based on Survival checks, and I spontaneously settled on a very similar system, with Survival for getting lost and Geography for finding your way again.  Still, I feel like I want something more-defined than that.

The game went off really great.  We had an Elven Ranger, Half-Elf Cleric of Gorram, Halfling Cleric of Pharasma, Human Fighter and Dwarven Druid.  They heard rumors of a dragon in the woods and met the sole survivor of a group who were apparently attacked by giant ants.  They got lost in the forest a few times, found a magic spring that got them drunk (the elf is the only one paranoid enough to not drink) and finally happened upon a dragon hunter who they joined up with to slay a Green Dragon wyrmling.  The cool thing is, I never planned on that happening when I seeded the rumors about the woods, I just wanted to warn them that dragons were on the table for Forest encounters.

My favorite scene of the night came about thanks to some odd behavior by a player and my inclination to say “yes.”  Early on the group met a travelling merchant, and the fighter spent a bunch of time going through his wares while the others asked him for rumors about the wilderness. He finally decided that he wanted to buy a shovel, and then proceeded to make Perception checks at every opportunity, looking for “anywhere that looks like there might be buried treasure.” I let him make the rolls and fail to find anything interesting, until he rolled a 1 on his check.  I decided that he found something recently buried that turned out to be a goblin grave under an oak tree.  Another of the players asked if goblin typically buried their dead in caskets, and the Ranger (who’s favored enemy is Goblins) rolled Knowledge and recalled that some tribes of goblins bury certain of their dead under oak trees as a sign of deep respect.  None of this was planned (I didn’t think they’d question a goblin in a casket), and now we’ve determined that they desecrated the grave of a goblin king. (I found out later that all my players thought he was digging up another traveler’s latrine pit…)

So I finally got the Strength Tables up on my Carrying the World on Your Back post; there has to be a better way to do tables in WordPress…

Anyways, I got the tables up and I wanted to share a few more thoughts on the topic.  The primary complaint about the D&D/Pathfinder encumbrance rules is that they’re too granular.  Each individual item is tracked with weights down to the fraction of a pound, and characters have varying levels of encumbrance based on their strength.  It’s straightforward but not easy or quick to calculate a character’s current encumbrance and, most damning, it is not easy or quick to figure out what the character needs to drop if he suddenly has to run from a monster.  I have a MS spreadsheet-based character sheet I grabbed off the Internet that does a good job tracking such things, but a system that requires a computer to use effectively is not a good system for a tabletop game.  Knowing what their biggest weights are should be as intuitive to my players as it is for their characters. This is the argument Pencils and Papers made that changed my mind on Encumbrance.

There are, I think, two ways to simplify the system, and both of them consist of moving to a coarser measure.  Delta suggested the use of the Stone, an archaic measure of weight that was roughly 14 or so pounds.  She kept herself to whole-Stone numbers, The Alexandrian introduced fractional-Stone measures with certain containers and the notion of Bundles (which he put as 5 Bundles to the Stone).  The math in the Alexandrian’s system bothered me, with talk about Stone and half-Stone and one-fifth-Stone (thanks to Bundles)…  So my thought was to set a Stone at 15lbs and a Bundle at 5lbs (1/3 Stone) and only track to the Bundle level.  I want to say that if it’s less than a Bundle you should ignore it, but I think that may make problems later on.

One of the things I’m happily cribbing from the Alexandrian is his general notions on how much things weigh and how things should be carried.  Basic weights for weapons and armor were taken by him from Delta, but he added containers and more granularity for miscellaneous equipment.  It should be noted that adding granularity when our intent was to reduce granularity is something to be wary of, but at the same time we don’t want to disassociate ourselves to much from the fictional world, and it’s not desirable to me to allow a player to carry infinite arrows or other such things.

From Delta and the Alexandrian, Heavy armor is 5 Stone, Medium armor is 3 Stone, and light armor is 1 Stone. Shields and full-sized (one- and two-handed) weapons are a Stone each.  Obviously characters should still recognize that a war hammer is weightier than a rapier, but I don’t think so much so that our mechanics need to care.  In particular, Items should be measured in whole Stone, as a single Bundle, or as a Bundle when collected (like arrows).

Light weapons in my system are a Bundle for 5, bolts and arrows are a Bundle for 20, and coins are a Bundle for 250. Miscellaneous gear should cover everything else from rations to potions to maps and whatever else you have.  Light items like a compass or Holy Symbol (unless it’s a particularly big or weighty holy symbol, I guess) can be ignored, and everything else gets put together in Bundles of 10.  In most cases if it’s less than a Bundle it can safely be ignored, but you may want to make exceptions if a character has several mostly-full bundles (3 daggers, 14 arrows, 200 coins and 8 misc. items should probably weight something).  Treasure should be assigned a weight by the DM, with a Stone being a hefty statue, a Bundle being a large gem or sack full of coins, and smaller items treated as misc. equipment.  Something unwieldy like a painting or rug may count as several Stone despite not actually weighing that much.

Containers include things like backpacks, belt-pouches, and sacks, and should be used to explain where a character puts his gear when he’s not holding it.  Weapons are assumed to come with sheathes and quivers which can attach to a belt or be slung over a shoulder, but other things need to be packed away. Empty containers are considered misc. equipment, containers holding things are ignored (just count the stuff they’re holding).

Finally, creature weights.  This will usually refer to familiars, who tend to be misc. equipment- or Bundle-sized. Small creatures are about 2 Stone, the average Human is 12 Stone, and a Large creature is 100 Stone. Individuals can weight more or less if you care to make a distinction, but should stick to whole-Stone numbers.  I’m just taking this stuff from The Alexandrian, so look to his page if you want to deal with larger creatures, though I’m not sure I want to know when or how the weight of a Colossal creature needs to be tracked…

Finally, for a guideline on figuring out weights of odd things you want in your dungeon, just divide the weight-in-pounds by 15 and drop any remainder; that’s how many Stone it weighs. If it’s smaller than a Stone but bigger than misc. equipment, call it a Bundle.

D&D? NEXT!

Posted: 24 May 2012 in The Hobby
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So a little background, I didn’t really encounter D&D until college, and by “college” I mean 2003, so it was right there with D&D 3.0 and 3.5.  I had a few terrible experiences with a few terrible DMs and decided I’d stick to my RIFTS and World of Darkness, thank you very much.  A few years later I heard about D&D 4E, saw the similarities with the MMOs I’d been playing for years, and felt it was an elegant solution to all the problems I saw with earlier D&D.  I’ve backed away from that opinion, but that’s maybe a discussion for another time.

By the time 5th Edition (are they really calling it D&D N5xt?) was announced, I’d already moved on to Pathfinder and figured there wasn’t anything they could do to bring me back.  Then I started reading about things like Hexcrawls and disassociative mechanics and complete game structures…  Suffice to say I dismissed 5E out of hand as something I could even care to follow.

This afternoon, I saw a post by a friend of a friend talking about the playtest materials (which I guess got released today?) and how it was a mix of 2E and 3E, consisted of a whole bunch of book-keeping, undid a bunch of what 4E had established, was catering to players that WotC had lost with 4E…  And now I’m thinking maybe I should rethink my initial dismissal of 5E.  Maybe there’s something there.

So, anyone out there been involved with D&D N5xt?  Does anyone have the playtest materials and can give me a second opinion?  Is there a way I can get the playtest materials?

I just read an interesting post over at Pencils and Papers about Character Generation versus Character Building.  P&P seems to take, or have taken in the past, a lot of time comparing modern games to the ideals of OSR gamers.  OSR is the Old School Renaissance that’s budded up in the community recently with a, some say overly-nostalgic, preference for the games and systems of the 1970s.  I would have to say that I am at least on the fringe of that group (notionally, at least), but my interest is mostly in taking mechanics from the past that have been discarded and re-integrating them into modern games.  I don’t want to play D&D 2E, I want to play Pathfinder with hexmaps and random encounter tables.

But I digress.  The post I referenced talks about old school “character generation” where you roll a few dice, pick a class, and you’re done.  P&P says there’s a de-emphasis or discouragement for players to get too deep into the rules, ostensibly so they don’t limit what they believe are valid options in play.  This is contrasted with Character Building, where the player is presented a cascade of rules and options to play with and customize their character.  P&P talks about how he loves Character Building, how he fiddles with his character and plans out his next level ahead of time and writes up character sheets for the NPCs in his background.  This is exactly what I do, and I have the same level of glee.  But P&P concludes that Character Building is harmful to the hobby.  It can be daunting to new players and it can really bog down the excitement of starting a new campaign (never mind just getting a group together at random for an afternoon of gaming).  When I had my players build characters for my Expectations game I feel that I set out fairly rigid guidelines in order to help limit the overwhelming options they had to deal with — they had a Standard array of stats instead of rolling or point-buy and I had soft and hard requirements their characters had to satisfy (generally, be an exemplar of your Race and Class in some meaningful way).  it still took them roughly a month to finally get me characters, and even then their sheets were incomplete in places.  Granted, I don’t expect they were actually working on their characters for any significant portion of time, but that it took that long is ridiculous no matter how you excuse it.

There is a problem with Character Building, and like P&P no one I know (with maybe a few exceptions) enjoys the character creation process.  That being said, I for one dislike the notion of character generation, even if it has the benefit of drastically cutting down the time necessary to create characters.

P&P talks about an imaginary system that makes equally balanced characters either through Generation or Building, to allow people like he and I to gleefully twiddle our characters while at the same time letting less-enthusiastic players generate a character 10 minutes before play.  It’s not clear that such a system is possible, and P&P claims to be working on a stop-gap to use with Pathfinder.  I haven’t checked to see if he’s gotten anywhere with that, but I like the idea of it.

I’ll take a note here and say that this is one of the things that I really like about some of the non-d20 games I’ve played.  CAPES has a really quick, easy, and fun method of character generation, and it DOES work (in a sense) whether you generate a character with their templates or free-form (I’ve done both).  Burning Empires uses a lifepath-style form of character creation, and while it doesn’t necessarily make it quicker or easier to generate a character, background details naturally flow out of it (something which isn’t true of most other systems).

For my purposes, I think I’ll start putting together “generation guidelines” for my players to help streamline choices.  I think I’ll use his “X+INT skills at Level+3+attribute” idea (though, what happens if X+INT is bigger than the list of class skills?) and work on paring down Feat option.  From my post on Massaging Feats I already plan on doing some pruning there.  After that, you have issues like Stats, Class Features, Spell Lists, and Equipment that needs to be accounted for.  I may take a page out of another RPG I played once (can’t remember which) and just bundle up packages, like “Necromancer Spell List” or “Tomb Raider Equipment.”

If anyone has thoughts on this or ideas on ways to help make Character Generation possible in modern D&D, let me know.

My last post was about time, and how keeping track of things allows you, the DM, to coordinate events in the game-world without falling to fiat or “dramatic timing.”  I noted that it opened up a lot of possibilities, the most obvious of which is a reliable way to determine if the players make it to the demonic altar in time to stop the evil ritual.  In the comments, dhlevine proposed a third way of using contested game stats and a die roll to see if players make it in time.  I acknowledged the idea as an alternative, depending on the mechanics available to you and the desired effect, but after thinking about it I think I’ve concluded that reducing time to a die roll is as bad as DM fiat.  It’s arguably less biased, but if you’re going to roll a die to determine the time things take you might as well not keep track of time at all.

The key piece that’s informing my determination here is player agency.  It’s a term that I’ve only recently come upon, thanks to either Hack & Slash or Papers and Pencils (I can’t remember which I saw first). The basic idea is that players have ‘agency’ when they are given meaningful choices and the choices they make have consequences (good or bad) in the game world. It’s the notion that players can control their own destiny. When a DM or game mechanic takes away options, negates choices, or ignores consequences it results in a less engaging, less fulfilling game experience for the players.  This is why railroading doesn’t work.  Players denied agency become frustrated.

Bringing us back to the question of time, if the answer to “did we make it in time” reduces down to a die roll, then you’ve essentially negated any choices the players have made that would affect timing.  I suppose you could hand-wave it, or have penalties or bonuses based ion player choices, or do a preemptive roll to see if the character can/do take time to prepare…  But it all ends up with the dice, rather than the players, making the final determination.  That just strikes me as poor form.

I’d like to take a moment here and note that I don’t hate die rolls.  They are a useful method of conflict resolution, especially if well formed mechanics are built around them and used appropriately.  My point here is that using dice to determine timing is an unnecessary and inappropriate use, and you might as well simply declare timing by fiat as leave it up to the dice.

Papers and Pencils had a couple of articles that struck me as really interesting, a discussion of the importance of tracking in-game time in RPG sessions, and a follow-up on the same.  What really struck me was the quote from Gary Gygax that P&P lead their first post with: “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.”  And those are Gygax’s ragecaps.

I started thinking about timing a while ago; one of the first Alexandian posts I read was on prepping situations instead of plots, and letting the situation (and the world) react to the player’s actions.  That calls for some amount of time management, because you need to know what events are starting and ending as the players move about the world, so you know what they prevent, what they interrupt, and what they miss.  That could be vague accounting, but the more vague it is the more similar it is to GM fiat — the players interrupt the ritual because the DM declares that they interrupt the ritual.  And like P&P points out, doing rigorous time management lets neat things happen, like having torches sputter out because the characters took too long.  Without requiring DM fiat (and avoiding that is a virtue, if you ask me).

P&P talks about three modes of timing that need to be addressed, which basically correspond to the three modes of movement: tactical movement, local movement, and overland movement. Tactical movement is used for combat encounters, and combat already has a rigorous method of time management that everyone is familiar with: the 6-second round.  P&P then suggests a 10-minute turn for local time management, and days for overland time management.  Turns can be sub-divided into minutes if necessary, and hours could be appropriate for either local or overland time management, depending on what’s going on.

Here are my suggestions for how to divide up and manage time; month, year, and season divisions are only appropriate for non-earth (or at least, non-Gregorian) settings:

6 second is 1 combat round.
10 combat rounds is 1 minute.
10 minutes is 1 game turn.
6 game turns is 1 hour.
24 hours is 1 day.
7 days is 1 week.
4 weeks is 1 month.
13 months is 1 year.
Each season (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is 13 weeks (3 1/4 months) long.

P&P recommends tracking Local time my ticking off turns on a sheet of paper while the players move through a town or dungeon.  Shifting between modes can generally be ignored, unless the players take a really long time in a lower mode.  Five or 10 rounds of combat (30 seconds to a minute) when moving through town won’t make a significant impact on how many Turns to track.

In addition to being able to track things like secret meetings and evil rituals, time management can give you a reliable way to measure the passage of the seasons and long term events like wars and famines.  Calendars can be printed out and used to track events that happen during a session and to schedule events that could happen in the future (if the PCs don’t prevent them).  The possibilities are kind of exciting.

As I mentioned in my first post, a big part of what caused this blog to come into being was articles I read on The Alexandrian. What I read there prompted me to think about playing and DMing in ways that hadn’t occured to me before.  One of my first and favorite posts there is “D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations.” something that had bothered me for a long time was the way that D&D characters “weren’t cool” until you were in the higher levels of play, and by that point you’d out-leveled a lot of my favorite monsters (notably goblins; I love goblins).

There’s more I can say there and maybe I will in a later post. The point is that the post established Level 1 as “regular people” and Level 3 as “Figures of Historic Note,” with Level 5 settling somewhere around “Mythic and Legendary Characters.” This fit a lot better with my desires for D&D, and Justin had enough argument to convince me that’s what was intended.  Since then I’ve decided that my preferred form of D&D is E6 (where Level 6 is the cap and Epic rules come in to play).

I’m currently running a campaign appropriately titled “Expectations,” with my goal being to emphasize how cool low-level play really is.  There are actually two things I’m working against here: player notions of what their characters are capable of, and all-too-prevalent world-scaling found in most D&D games I’ve played in, heard of, and even run myself.  The two are, I think, strongly related and problematic, but I’ll set them aside for a separate post.

Expectations is the campaign that prompted me to really start looking at game structures and the lack of tools that I currently have at my disposal.  I’ll probably refer to it from time to time, and I intent to test a lot of the thoughts I share here in that game.

Massaging Feats

Posted: 19 May 2012 in GM Advice
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I’m going to go ahead and say that I’ve never really liked feats.People talk about how they’re good because they give players a way of setting their character apart from other characters with the same race and class, but I’ve never felt that sat right.

Papers and Pencils has an article up about the problem with feats, and it gives words to the issues I have with feats that I wasn’t able to express: namely, many feats ‘let’ characters do things that they should be able to do anyways.  Now, I’m not sure I buy his complaint about Willful Deformity — he’s right that anyone can take a knife to their face, but is that really enough to warrant a mechanical benefit for it?  And that’s kind of been my line for a while: sure you can do that in the fiction, but if you want a mechanical benefit you need the feat/trait/background/whatever.

I can’t find the article (or remember who’s blog it was on), but I read something recently that changed my mind on that a little bit. The article talked about how heroes in action movies — the guys we want our players to emulate — take crazy chances to get the job done; but players almost invariably take a more-cautious approach, choosing the tried-and-true tactics rather than trying anything fancy or risky.  And the point they made was that this happens because there’s no benefit for players to offset their risk.  If we want to encourage certain actions we need to have some mechanical benefit to offer players.

So when we have a feat that ‘lets’ a character do something they should be able to do anyways, it HAS to steal the mechanical benefits of that action in order to be meaningful.  Take Power Attack.  It ‘lets’ a character swing wildly, with the full force of their strength behind the blow.  They sacrifice accuracy for damage.  But why does this need to be a feat?  Can’t anyone sacrifice accuracy for damage?  That’s a bad feat.

Contrast it to a good feat, like Point-Blank Shot: you get a bonus to hit targets within a certain range.  It makes doing something anyone can do easier if you have the feat. P&P propose the existence of Feats that let a character do something that isn’t available to everyone, but I can’t think of anything like that off the top of my head.

I think there’s also a problem with a lot of the prerequisites, the way feats fall into tiers, but that has more to do with what level those feats effectively become available and what that means (which is another topic).

Properly understood, feats should be special talents and knacks that a character has that makes them more capable that untalented peers. Feats that don’t accurately represent that, or worse steal ability that should be generally available, should be removed.

Just a quick plug here — the role of women in RPGs is a pretty… energetic topic of discussion.  I stumbled upon an interesting article on the subject from Game Knight Reviews, and though I’m still making my way through it I wanted to toss up a link to the Women Fighters Tumblr page they pointed to.  They post pics of women in “reasonable armor,” the sort of stuff that’s feminine but functional.  Just a useful source of inspiration for players and DMs.

A little bit ago, I read a post on The Alexandrian about how the current Pathfinder/D&D system for encumbrance doesn’t work and proposing an alternative method (influenced heavily by Delta’s D&D Hotspot and Lamentations of the Flame Princess).  Shortly afterwards, a budding DM friend of mine suggested something similar (probably borrowing from the same sources).  In both cases, though, I resisted; the Pathfinder system is accurate and granular, and the coarser measurements of the Stone system seemed to make things unnecessarily vague.  With the Pathfinder System I know when something is heavy enough to put me in the next load category, and it wasn’t clear that the same would be true with Stones, or that Stones would represent various character’s abilities faithfully.  So I cast Stones aside.

In the meantime, though, it’s become apparent that I was probably wrong, and that (as The Alexandrian noted), the current system might be accurate but it wasn’t useful.  Encumbrance was calculated once, at best, and then generally ignored.   computer could quickly and easily adjust a character’s load in real time, but it is kind of silly to have a system in a tabletop, ostensibly-paper-and-pencil role-playing game that requires a computer to use properly.  So I’m thinking of adopting the Stone encumbrance system myself.  The fact that saying things like “I’m carrying about 3 stone” is evocative for the setting helps.

Paper & Pencils had a post a short time ago about making encumbrance work.  There’s a lot of good stuff in there and it’s a big part of what finally changed my mind.  However, I didn’t like the Significant Item system they presented, or the fact that they tossed aside the notion of adjusting carry limits for Large or Small creatures.  The problem I have with that is that (1) a Small creature should be able to carry less than a proportionately-build Medium creature, and not all Small races have a STR penalty.  It seems weird to assume that all halflings are naturally stronger, proportionately, than their human counterparts.  The corollary to this is that shrinking someone would have no effect on their ability to carry their gear.  Granted, most extant “reduce person” spells have a STR penalty built in, but even if that weren’t the case, it’s only reasonable that a smaller frame wouldn’t be able to carry the same amount of stuff.  So I argue that encumbrance systems should take Size in to consideration.  I could be persuaded that this makes things unnecessarily complex, but I’m not sure it does.

I also liked The Alexandrian’s idea of bundles to replace Delta’s simple “misc equipment” category.   I think there should be better guidance on what can/should be bundled together — does 1 torch, 1 wand, and 1 potion really hinder someone as much as 5 torches, 5 wands, and 5 potions?  I did like his notion of containers and only being able to pack on so much gear, but I’m not sure I agree with his numbers for how much a character can life — particularly since they all seem to be less than the character’s “max load” numbers. it’s vague since Max load is listed in Stones and lift limit is listed in Pounds.

Most of the rules I would include can be found at the Alexandrian post.  This includes the general weights of items and creatures, how bundling misc. equipment works, and the use of containers.  The only change I would make is that light weapons are 5 to the bundle, ammunition is 20 to the bundle, and coinage is 250 to the bundle (750 to the stone).

Below are my own Encumbrance By Stone tables for Medium, Small, and Large creatures.  These are essentially a direct transform from the Pathfinder table, which by the numbers is apparently what everyone else did as well.  For my purposes, 1 Stone = 15lbs, more or less, which divides nicely into thirds. Bundles are 3 to the stone.

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So I’m kind of in love with hexcrawl mechanics right now.  This is the structure from the Alexandrian post that really grabbed me, and though I can’t quite put my finger on why I think it just solves a lot of issues I’d had with running games that have any amount of travel. They’re an elegant way to give the party information on their surroundings, meaningful choices to make on where they go and how they get there, and a structure for random encounters that’s more than just “roll the dice to see what you fight.”

In fact, I think that the departure from hexcrawls as a meaningful game structure is the root of a lot of common problems that the hobby has these days. DMs lack the tools they need to build the games we want.

So, what do you need for a hexcrawl?  The only real essential is a hexmap, but you’ll also want a way to key the map with encounters.  One option is to simply key each hex by hand but that leads to a lot of potentially-wasted effort, and what happens if the party revisits the same hex?  Random Encounter Tables or a system for Wandering Monsters is the better way to go, in my opinion.

I’m currently using Hexographer to build my maps.  They’re pretty intuitive and you can use it for free online.  I bought a copy, but that’s because it’s hard for me to no go full-bore on things I get excited about.  I’m using the Atlas Hex templates from Welsh Piper, and building my map based on their guidelines for the same.

The cool thing about the templates is they readily scale from a map the size of Alaska down to a regional or local level; just keep dividing the scale by 5 to zoom in to a new map (or multiply be 5 to zoom out). There’s a tool here I use to get an idea of how big the Atlas and Region templates are (radius for the Atlas template is 312.5mi, radius for a Regional Template is 62.5mi, radius for a Hex template is 12.5mi).  The Welsh Piper guidelines for painting hexes are useful and produce reasonable/realistic results, though I think their rules should bend or break occasionally to get the map you want.  I’m not sure every mountain range needs 5 miles of foothills, but you’d need to ask yourself what it means to have Mountains bordering right on your Plains; maybe a sheer rock face?

There are lots of options for how to key your map with encounters, and I actually haven’t settled on one yet.  I may try various systems by turns to see which I like the most. Welsh Piper has a key-by-hand system based on their Atlas Hex templates and a notion of Major and Minor encounters (either of which can be anything from a settlement to a monster lair or a natural feature). They also have advice on how to make these encounters meaningful without adding a lot of extra prep work, and the advice can be useful regardless of what encounter system you’re using.

Roles, Rules, and Rolls has a couple of posts on a Random Encounter system that goes well with a key-by-hand system; in fact, I kind of love it.  The first post talks about how the system works, and the second post gives an example of what it’s like in play.  Basically, once you’ve keyed the hexes of your map, this system lets you randomly choose how the party experiences those features and monsters as they travel through hexes.  It allows for stumbling upon the creature’s lair, but also has options for finding clues about monsters in neighboring hexes or encountering a creature that’s ranging out from it’s home.  My only lament is that I haven’t figured out a good way to incorporate it with random encounter/wandering monster tables.

Random tables are the alternative to keying each hex by hand.  Instead you mark off regions of your map (the Hohum Plains or the Fifo Hills or the Everglades) and construct a table of encounters based on what characters are likely to find in that area.  Goblins in the forests, farmers on the plains, crude altars in the hills.  Paper & Pencils has some good advice on ways to build out random encounter tables.  And there are other considerations that can be useful regardless of what encounter structure you’re using, such as what the monster’s doing when the party finds it, but I think I’ll set that aside for now.

The genesis of this blog can be traced pretty neatly to a recent series of posts on game structures at The Alexandrian.  I’d been reading the blog for about a year or so and liked a lot of the ideas that Justin had, but this series was something of an epiphany for me.

The series was about Game Structures, the systems of mechanics inside RPGs that allow us to actually do things.  They’re what inform us on what to do next and how to determine success.  I came relatively late to the hobby, and if you’d asked me a month ago to answer those questions I would have said something like, “whatever makes a good story” and “roll a d20 against a DC,” respectively.  It had never occurred to me to think about game structures, and I had never examined the game structures I had available nor considered that there were other structures out there.  I read the Player’s Guide and DMG cover-to-cover and that’s all I needed to know, right?

In fact, no, that’s not all I need to run a good game, and now that I’m thinking in terms of game structures I can put context to a lot of the difficulties I’ve had with running games.  Why haven’t I been able to make exploration or travel compelling? Why does everything boil down to a Dungeon Crawl or Combat Encounter?  Because those are the only tools I have, and when all you have is a hammer you approach every problem as a nail.  So I’m starting this blog as a way to build up my DM’s Toolbox, to talk about game structures, collect the neat things I find on the web, and hopefully build a useful resource for others who come after me.