Archive for June, 2012

The Next D&D N5xt

Posted: 29 June 2012 in The Hobby
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Mike Mearls has an article up talking about the survey feedback they got from the first round of open playtesting for D&D 5E, and what that means for the next round.

As I’m writing this, it strikes me: why am I writing this?  I’ve pretty much already decided that 5th Edition isn’t going to be for me.  At best I’ll riffle through 5E’s pockets for a few nice ideas, but it’s unlikely that they’re going to make a system that serves me better than 3.X or Pathfinder, and certainly not the way they’re heading right now.  Everything about 5E strikes me as “wonky”, so why bother spending more time on it?

I think the answer is: D&D, and role-playing in general, is something I’m passionate about.  I want to see it done well, and so I can’t help but engage in this dialog (such as it is).  D&D 5E probably won’t become something I want, but if I don’t participate it definitely won’t.  It’s still probably a futile exercise, but…

Anyways, go ahead and read Mearls’ article, I’m going to go through and address his points.

I do think they’re on to something with speed of play, though that may just be in light of the slow pace of modern gaming, and D&D 4E in particular.  It strikes me that the way we play modern systems (regardless of the rules system) tends to bog things down with options and analysis and so on.  The playtest rules at least feel a little more “fast and loose,” so I’ll give them credit for that.  I think most people had positive responses for (Dis)Advantage because they haven’t grasped the full implications of the mechanic.  I’ve all-but decided that I’m strongly opposed to it, myself – not because I think it’s a bad idea, but because I don’t like the roll-twice-drop-one mechanic (and the way it’s math plays out alongside static bonuses).

I like the sounds of adding in combat options and different maneuvers.  I’m… intrigued by the thought of Facing rules.  In my gaming career I’ve never encountered anything like that, though the people I know who have rarely seem to have good things to say about it.  Too much book-keeping?  I don’t know.

Surprise (which was just -20 Initiative for those surprised) was actually something I really liked.  I might have changed it to, say, -15 or -10 so that it wasn’t quite as severe (the best you could do when surprised is a score equal to your DEX mod, and most of the time you’d have a negative score — which means you’re going after everyone on the other side for the entire battle).  I can see how the permanent loss of initiative could be frustrating over the period of a long battle.  Maybe make the -20 temporary?  Or have the surprised members just lose their first turn?  It’s something to think about.

Critical hits were automatic on a 20 and did max damage.  I guess I can see how that’s boring, but it’s also not far from the way things have always been.  I’m a fan of 3.X criticals (threat range, confirm roll, and 2x the roll) with my only real complaint being that a crappy roll can do less than a regular hit (been thinking about max damage+roll for my games).  I really don’t like auto-crit on a 20; it means that 1 in 20 swings will be a critical, regardless of how easy or tough your opponent is.   like confirm rolls because it means 1 in 20 *hits* will be a critical, and that’s a bigger number for weak foes and a smaller number for tough ones.

They’re still interested in getting rid of skill points, and I can kind of understand that.  I think it’s a mistake, but I can understand it.  The idea of having training replace your attribute mod instead of enhancing it is interesting, but it means that training is less useful for someone who’s attributes SHOULD make them good at it.  So a character with a -2 mod is just as good with training as the guy with a +3 mod.  That doesn’t feel right.

Resting and Healing is where I had some of the biggest issues with the playtest.  He doesn’t really say much, except that it sounds like they want to put out different sets of rules depending on how gritty you want your game.  when it comes down to it, THAT is one of the things I dislike the most about the way they’re approaching 5E.  If I get together with friends to play 4E or Pathfinder or OSRIC, there’s a reasonable expectation that we all understand the system we’re going to be playing with, with a bit of variance for house rules and preferences.  With D&D 5E, though, the ASSUMPTION going in is that you can drastically change the rules system, and so it strikes me that there will have to be a negotiation each time a group forms — and when I say that, I mean more of a negotiation than “do we want to play 4E or 3.X?  Each time a new campaign starts there will need to be a discussion as to whether we’re using Themes, or Facing Rules, or High Lethality, and when someone tells invites me to their 5E game, I need ask, “well, which 5e?”

The one thing he does say definitively is more than a little concerning for me: they want to move Healing magic out of the spellcasting system and into a theme or something so that Clerics can heal *and do something else* each round, be it heal and attack, or heal and cast a spell, or whatever.  This concerns me because it’s essentially the biggest tactical failing of 4th Edition.  Tactical Healing works best when it’s a choice you need to make, like taking any other defensive move rather than an offensive one.  By allowing a Cleric to do healing and attacks at the same time, there’s no trade off.  Healing becomes assumed (because why would you not choose to heal, if it’s essentially free), and in becoming assumed it becomes necessary.  Now instead of having Cleric (or at least, Healer) as an option, it’s a staple that every party needs to have in order to be successful.

If you don’t want to be a Healer, don’t be a Healer.  If you don’t want all Clerics to be Healers, we’ve already begun to address that.  But if we take away the tactical cost of healing we lose the ability to choose to have it or not.

An update on my attempt to “fix” Fourth Edition.  After my last post where I posit an abstract system of “energy” that you can use to power Encounter or Daily powers, it was pointed out to me than not all powers are created equally.  A character might have a three Encounter Powers, but they’ll be Level 1, Level 2, and Level 4 (or whatever progression they have; it’s been a while since I looked at my 4E PHB).  So while my system would try to treat them equally, it’s probable that a player would always use their Level 4 power three times in every encounter, and never use their Level 1 power.  That strikes me as kind of a problem.

A possible solution was that I could give characters a numerical amount of energy based on their level, and then charge different amounts for a Level 4 Encounter Power versus a Level 1 Encounter Power (and do the same for Dailies).  The problem is that this adds a lot more book keeping than I wanted, and now I need to worry a lot more about relative balance (why would I ever use my Level 8 Daily if I can use my Level 4 Encounter four times for the same cost, etc).

I haven’t totally given up on the project, but it has taken a back seat to a number of other things vying for my attention. Hopefully I’ll be able to think hard about it again relatively soon (and maybe open my books to see exactly how uneven we’re talking…).

I’ve been thinking about WotC’s new “bounded accuracy” idea a lot lately.  The long and short of it is that I don’t like it.  On face value it solves a problem (scaling bonuses and DCs don’t mean anything) that we created ourselves when we stopped letting 5th Level Adventurers encounter a 10th Level Roper.  We developed a fetish for ‘balanced encounters’ and, yes, when you scale monsters and obstacles to the party’s level, monsters and obstacles will scale to the party’s level.  The answer is to stop scaling to the party’s level; then the whole thing goes away.  Let the players experience things they can’t overcome, and then show them the same thing when they can overcome it and the sense that level advancement is pointless goes away.  But it means showing players Really Hard encounters and Really Easy encounters all the time. It means setting DCs based on actual properties of the obstacle, not on how big the character’s bonus is (or should be).

Building appropriate DCs is actually pretty easy.  Once you have the right notion of what the D&D system is supposed to model, you can get an objective sense of how hard things are.  DC 20 isn’t “the DC that’s hard for 3rd Level Adventurers,” it’s “the difficulty of performing master-quality work.”  And you can do this because you can break down what a character’s bonuses mean.

The catch is combat.  At least, that’s the hook I’ve been stuck on since i started chewing on this issue.  Deconstructing to-hit bonuses is still pretty straightforward.  If you’re stronger you can swing your sword better, faster, more accurately, so Strength plays a factor.  There’s a practical limit to strength (there’s an old Roles Rules and Rolls post that equates STR scores with “strength of n men”), and it’s based off a measurable quality of a creature.  There’s also equipment to consider (since masterwork or Magic weapons can help score a telling blow), and lastly there’s training — which is represented as Base Attack Bonus and goes up based on level and class.  if you have a complaint about the rate that BAB increases that might be a valid argument to make, but the system models several (fairly distinct, I think) tiers of adventuring, and there’s a hard limit on BAB within a tier (the best you can do is be a Fighting Man and get +Level).


There’s a couple of posts on here right now discussing Race in D&D.  On the one hand we have a discussion of Race As Class, and more recently I tried to address the issue of races that are Always Chaotic Evil. Both of these issues are hold-overs from the origins of D&D, probably inherited from Chainmail and now warped to some extent or another due to lack of context and the evolution of the game. So right off, I’d have to concede that both are probably a matter of taste to some extent, and your mileage may vary.  That being said, I think both issues stem from a common source, and I intend to demonstrate why it’s not a patently absurd notion.

In that latter post a commenter suggested that my argument is only a partial answer to the question of racial stereotypes in D&D, and that there are plenty of things to consider — like, what about an industrious tribe of Goblins?  What about a group of Orcs who built a sprawling metropolis and discuss philosophy in amphitheaters?  For that matter, what about hyper-industrialist elves carving a swath of devastation across the land in their all-consuming drive to produce and consume?

When it comes down to it, I think this is all a question of whether all fantasy races are just humans in funny hats or not. That is, are we all just the same at a fundamental level, or are there actual differences that are simply inherent in the races.  Why are goblins erratic and lazy?  Because that’s part of what being a goblin is.  You might as well ask why fire burns.  Maybe they fatigue easily, maybe they have some other biological quirk that makes focus and productivity difficult or impossible.  Maybe their neural chemistry produces a different kind of perception, in the end it doesn’t matter how deep you go or what kind of explanation you give, the final question you have to ask is: are goblins (or orcs or elves) just the same as humans, or not?  If the answer is “no, they’re just the same as humans” that might be a valid setting to play in, but I feel like you lose a lot of the potential that Fantasy brings us as a genre.  And if the answer is “no, they’re different from humans somehow” then at some level that’s your answer — goblins are like goblins because they’re different from humans.  You can go on to discuss the hows and whys behind that answer, and I could see a whole campaign built around an adventuresome researcher trying to understand the various Races, but in the end the question is already answered.

So, my goblins are lazy, my orcs are brutal, my elves are arrogant.  Some goblins may be clever, some orcs may be honorable, and some elves may be benevolent — there may be whole tribes of each of these — but there is something fundamental that makes them goblins, orcs, and elves and asking why they don’t behave like humans is partly missing the point.

So there’s a lot of talk about the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic that’s been put forward in the D&D N5xt playtests.  The basic idea is that when you have favorable circumstances on a roll (most cases I’ve seen people address it as an Attack roll, but it also applies to skill checks and possibly even saving throws) you have Advantage and you roll two d20s and keep the highest.  If circumstances are against you (tactically outmaneuvered, or maybe makeshift tools for picking a lock) you have Disadvantage and roll two d20s and keep the lower score.

A little bit ago, Roles, Rules, and Rolls proposed that this really just comes down to a bonus or penalty of about 3.325 or so, on average.  He also noted that  it’s the effect over the range that matters most, with effectively a +5 at even odds tapering down to minimal benefit (or penalty) for extreme rolls of 1 or 2, 19 or 20.  He concluded that it was simple and elegant, and had an “old school” feel.

Just recently I was directed to The Online GM‘s take on the same issue, at about the same time.  But unlike RR&R, The Online DM compared Advantage and Disadvantage to other similar mechanics, like the flat -2 for being prone, or +2 for Flanking.  He notes that in the mid ranges (where he admits most of D&D lives), (dis)advantage is giving you a swing of +4 or +5, which is huge compared to the older mechanics.  At the same time, (dis)advantage has very little effect on the extreme ranges (as noted) — basically, Advantage makes even odds a lot more likely, but generally leaves hard tasks hard; similarly, Disadvantage makes even odds a lot less likely, but generally keeps easy things easy.

Critical Hits follows a very similar line and plots out 2d20 versus a flat +2 bonus, and shows that the +2 bonus out-performs 2d20 at the extremes (and makes a 21 or 22 even possible).  Then he plots out +3, +4, and +5 and shows a sort of pyramid pattern, with 2d20 out-performing flat bonuses in the mid ranges and losing effectiveness toward the extremes.  That is to say, flat bonuses favor longshots more than Advantage (flat penalties potentially hurt more than Disadvantage) — and in fact, bonuses make otherwise impossible targets (like a DC25) possible and Advantage doesn’t (similarly, Disadvantage makes a DC20 unlikely, but even a -1 penalty makes DC20 impossible).

Finally, the crux of what’s picking at my brain right now, Campaign Mastery takes a look at the patterns beneath all of this, the curved progression of bonuses that 2d20 gives, with plus or minus (almost) 25% when the target is 11 down to plus or minus 5% at the edges.  Then he plots that against a graph of target-numbers-based-on-to-hit-bonuses and comes to a number of potent conclusions, the most important of which seems to be this: as your bonus goes up, the effect of either Advantage or Disadvantage goes down.  If you’re sufficiently skilled, neither Advantage nor Disadvantage are going to affect your odds much.  If you have a high enough AC, you don’t need to worry about being in a tactically Disadvantaged position (because you’ll still be just as hard to hit).  If you have a high enough skill, you don’t need to care much about favorable conditions (because the benefit will be marginal).  Campaign Mastery concludes that this is an effective foil to min-maxing, and maybe it is, but something about it strikes me wrong.


So what’s the bottom line?  I’m not really sure; the math of 2d20 still feels really wonky to me, and adding in flat bonuses as well makes it even more so.  I’m trying not to think too hard about how it might interact with the notion of bounded accuracy.

I think it can be summed up as follows:

  • Advantage makes easy tasks guaranteed, moderate tasks easy, and difficult tasks are still difficult
  • Disadvantage makes difficult tasks very difficult, moderate tasks difficult, and easy tasks are still easy
  • (Dis)Advantage doesn’t make impossible tasks possible, or hard tasks impossible, the way flat bonuses and penalties do
  • (Dis)Advantage matters progressively less the better you get, meaning that as you improve in skill your tactics and circumstances mean less — so paradoxically, a good Fighter benefits less from good tactics.

In the end, I’m not sure how I feel about the mechanic.  It may be I just prefer the devil I know, and I don’t trust this new mechanic which seems difficult to understand by comparison.  I know that a +2 bonus gives be a flat +10% likelihood.  I really have no idea on a case-by-case basis what Advantage gets me, or how much Disadvantage hurts.  And like I’ve mentioned elsewhere, uncertainty and inconsistency are not things I find endearing in a system.

I feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just me.

There’s a post today at Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Website about how every group needs a moral compass “to remind his or her adventuring companions that they’re heroes.”  I would tend to disagree — there are some play styles and some campaigns where having a moral compass might be useful or encouraged, but I think it’s a stretch to say that every group needs a moral compass.  After all, who ever said that the PCs have to be “heroes”?

There was a time when I would have agreed with the WotC article, when I would have shaken my fist and said “yes, that’s what my group needs.”  In those days, I developed campaigns not unlike movie screenplays or novel outlines, and a lot of the time my players messed it up.  They wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go, they wouldn’t act the way I wanted them to act.  I found myself building barriers to discourage the “wrong” choices and trying to suss out what kind of sticks or carrots I could use to get my players to go the “right” direction.  Did they want money, or glory, or fame?  Could I kidnap a family member, or threaten them with the King’s Justice if they didn’t obey?  Those were very stressful times for me, and I’ve been moving slowly but steadily away from them.

The point is, an adventuring group only needs a moral compass if there are wrong choices for them to make.  And more and more, I feel that framing things so that any choice can be wrong kind of misses the point of Role Playing.  Sure, if you have a certain style of game you want to play — say a heroic quest where the PCs fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy — then there are guidelines you need to set down so that everyone (including the DM) has fun with the game.  But the heart of Role Playing is making choices based on who your character is, and for me the best role playing is when your character has to make a tough choice — and that usually requires the character to choose between Good and Evil in some way.  If the going-in assumption is that Evil is always the “wrong” choice, then there’s no choice at all.

In my games, all choices have consequences.  All choices change the world in some way, and that change will come back to affect the characters in some way.  Good acts will sometimes have negative consequences, sometimes doing bad things makes achieving your goals easier.  Players are free to choose to be the Heroes, and that can be awesome and fulfilling, but if my players want to fracture the party and raise armies against each other, I think that should be just as valid.  If players choose to be villains we should let them, and they should reap the benefits and consequences of their actions regardless of what those actions are.

I had a conversation about alignments yesterday, and in particular the problem of “monster” races, and how such-and-such race is “always chaotic evil.”  I agreed that this was a problem, that things would be different in my games, that it shouldn’t be reasonable that a Lawful Good Paladin slaughters an entire village of sentient (if ugly) creatures without a twinge of guilt.

Now, in my system of alignment, “evil” isn’t evil, per se.  It could be argued that none of the traditional labels are particularly good fitsBut then we actually started talking about specific races, what the differences are between goblins, hobgoblins, and orc; what their cultures were like.  I started saying things like, “goblins are scavengers; they’re frenetic and lazy and they take things rather than build them.”  “Hobgoblins are militaristic and expansionist, more like an army than a society; they constantly seek to expand and subjugate other nations.” “Orcs are a brutal, tribal people who function on a ‘might makes right’ basis.”  So even if “evil” just means “willing to actively hurt others to achieve your goals,” aren’t all of these — goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs — simply evil creatures?  What would a good goblin look like?

As with my concept of alignment generally, I think the answer is a complicated one full of nuance.  I think that these societies that I’ve outlined are evil, and I think that being in that environment will tend individual members towards a matching alignment — after all, my notion of alignment is essentially short hand for characters’ values, and people derive at least some of their values from their society.  But just like I can envision a Lawful Good villain doing terrible things because “it’s for the best,” I can see a Good goblin who’s no less inclined to go raid a neighboring settlement.  In a way, both come down to rationalization, and if either one thinks too hard on it they might find themselves conflicted, wracked with guilt, or even choosing to change their alignment.  An Evil goblin raids a neighbor because he can, because he wants what they have, and he doesn’t care if (or possibly looks forward to) others get hurt in the process.  A Good goblin raids a neighbor because he has too, because they have things that his community needs, and he would rather (or possibly acts to ensure) nobody gets hurt in the process.  Both of them are raiding their neighbors and potentially having violent confrontations, but they have different reasons and different attitudes.

In the end, the point is that societies have an identity and alignment that is composed of but also more than the identity and alignment of their individual members.  Could there be a whole tribe of Lawful Good goblins who respect tradition and honor and don’t like hurting others?  Sure, but they’ll probably still raid their neighbors, because they’re frenetic and lazy.