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).

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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.

tl;dr

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.

Hitting the Target

Posted: 19 June 2012 in Toolbox
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One thing that I’m undecided about is D&D N5xt’s “bounded accuracy” idea.  As I mentioned a little bit ago, I’m generally not a fan of it.  It strikes me as an unnecessary “solution” to a problem we have created for ourselves. (That problem being that as characters gain levels and improve Skill bonuses and To-Hit bonuses, the creatures they face have higher AC and the challenges we give them have higher DCs, so it’s all a wash.)  We created it when we stopped basing the mechanics off the world (that’s a really difficult cliff to climb, so DC 18) and started basing the world off the mechanics (characters at this level will have a +4 to climb, so for this to be a challenge is needs a DC 18).  If you stop doing that, if you let characters encounter a world that has both trivial and impossible obstacles, then the fact that they get higher bonuses matters.

That being said… while we have a general notion of what DCs mean in terms of skill and talent and success, it seems to me that we don’t have anything similar for modeling AC and to-hit bonuses.  This is particularly meaningful to me because I think combat may be the one place where bounded accuracy could make sense.  I’m not convinced it does make sense, but it could.  With skill checks, that cliff will always be a DC18 cliff, but if it’s windy, rainy, icy, and so on you might take penalties to your Climb check, and so having higher and higher bonuses is meaningful because not only can you succeed at Really Hard Things, but you can succeed even in non-ideal conditions.  How can the same things translate to combat?

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Mike Mearls, the guy in charge of D&D N5xt, did an Ask Me Anything over at Reddit.  I didn’t get a chance to ask the one question I’m curious about — that is, have they considered not making a 5th Edition — but Blog of Holding has a run-down of some of the answers Mearls gave that hint at new mechanics they’re considering for the game.  More and more I’m thinking I’ll take a pass on D&D N5xt and just cherry pick their best ideas to add as houserules to systems I do like.

Associating Powers

Posted: 16 June 2012 in House Rules
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One of the things that bothers me the most when it comes to 4th Edition D&D is how difficult many of the mechanics (and descriptions of those mechanics) make it for me to envision the situation.  A lot of the mechanics make the world seem inconsistent, and that makes it difficult for my to really portray my character. And one of the key offenders is the Attack and Utility Powers characters get.

Ostensibly, each class is based off of a given ‘power source,’ be it Magic, Divine, Primal, Psionic, Shadow, or Martial.  Each class then learns a number of At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers.  At-Will powers can be used whenever the character wants, Encounter powers can be used once before needing a 5-minute “short rest” to recharge, and Daily Powers can be used only once before needing an 8-hour “long rest” to recharge.  This system easily lends itself to balancing classes against each other, and it’s nominally straight forward to envision using up energy to perform these feats and then needing to ‘recharge,’ not unlike a video game.  The problem is that the system breaks down if you inspect it from the point of view of the characters; this is especially problematic for Martial characters who, traditionally, don’t have a consumable pool of energy.

For example, one of the rogue’s daily powers lets him inflict the target with a bleeding wound.  Why is this something he can only do once a day?  The answer is “because of game balance” (I’m told 4E had a very top-down design, starting with desired effects and then moving to probable causes) but that has no meaning to the character.  It becomes a dissociated mechanic that the player has to make choices on but that the character can’t make choices on.

The first adjustment I want to make to 4th Edition is changing the way Powers work so that they can more meaningfully be translated into terms the characters can understand and reason on.

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I recently read a rather long post by The Angry DM discussing the question “what is Role Playing?”  Angry got a bit irritated by stock phrases like “role playing means different things to different people” and the notion that role playing and dice are mutually exclusive (or at least at odds with each other).  Angry notes that long before Gygax and Crew created their spin-off of Chainmail “role playing” was an actual term with actual meaning.

Angry goes through several pages of discussion (and I think it’s all good stuff), but his thoughts basically boil down to a few key points.

  • Role Playing is the process of envisioning a situation, putting yourself into the place of one of the characters, and then making a decision on what that character would do.  If you’re imagining a scene and deciding what your character would do, you’re role playing.
  • All the other bits that we associate with role playing, including speaking in character and describing actions, are good aids for role playing, but they’re really just presentation.  They help the other players understand the new situation that comes about once your character has acted, but they aren’t  necessary to role playing as such.  Someone who narrates rather than monologues is role playing just as much as anyone else.
  • There are two classes of role playing — ‘weak’ role playing, where the decision you make would be made the same way and for the same reasons regardless of what character you’re portraying (buying an item at $30 instead of $60); and ‘strong’ role playing, where the decision you make is heavily based on the personality of the character you’re portraying, and often involves resolving an internal conflict (wanting two mutually exclusive things, or not wanting either of two options).
    • “Weak” and “strong” are not meant to signify “bad” and “good” roleplaying, it’s just a matter of how dependent on the character your choices are.  Angry notes that in some cases, such as combat, weak role playing can be very appropriate, as people trained for high stress situations fall into predictable routines.
    • Angry also notes that this doesn’t preclude combat from having strong role play opportunities — the Elf Fighter who engages the Orc opponent, heedless of his party or other considerations, because he has an intense hatred for Orcs, is making a strong role playing decision.

This whole discussion struck a chord with me because (as with many posts I read relating to our hobby) it gave me words for considerations that I didn’t have before.  It would often bother me when, having asked my players what their character’s attitude or opinion on a thing was, they would respond with “why should I have to know that?” or “why should I decide that now?” or “I just want to develop my character through play.”  I’ll acknowledge that developing characters in play is valid (and honestly expected), but I can now say why the lack of a clear understanding of my player’s characters bothers me: I yearn for strong role play, where characters are presented with difficult choices to make and internal conflicts to resolve.  That is exceedingly difficult to achieve as a GM if I can’t get a view on what my player characters care about, or fear, or whatever.

I don’t have a good fix to the issue (I still desire answers and my players still resist providing them) but at least I know what’s going on and can begin to address it constructively.

Adjusting 4E

Posted: 14 June 2012 in House Rules
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When all is said and done, 4th Edition is what finally brought me in to the D&D fold.  It made the game approachable in a way that bad DMs and years of textbooks to catch up on never did.  I was repelled by it’s flaws pretty quickly and fell in with Pathfinder and (to a much lesser extent) the OSR movement, but I still owe 4E some credit.  I also have a number of friends (including my wife) who came on board with 4E and don’t feel as strongly about it’s flaws as I do, so I’ve decided to put effort into “fixing” the system so I don’t find it so repellant.  I’ll be collecting those house rules on a new Page I’ve created, and probably adjusting my adjustments as I find what works and what doesn’t.

A lot of this is based off of comments made on Dissociated Mechanics, Defining Your Game, and the Dual Faces of Healing, probably some other sources and influences as well.  Right now I only have a few beginning notions of what I think I need to fix, and the barest notion of how to fix them.  Thoughts and feedback are welcome.

Energy Sources : All classes in 4E have an energy source, not unlike characters in Diablo 3, but it’s a rather informal, dissociated thing.  I’d like to clean that up, and make it reasonable that a Fighter only gets 3 Encounter powers every 5 minutes, and 2 Dailies each day.

Energy Conversion: Related to Energy Sources, I feel like there should be some notion of converting between Encounter energy and Daily energy.  It’s all effectively Mana or Focus or Fatigue, just bigger or smaller chunks, you should be able to give up a Daily to recharge Encounters, or forgo your encounters to fire off an extra Daily, right?

Power Through Pain: So what happens when you’re out of Energy?  You just can’t do anything but basic moves?  I think I want to have a mechanic where characters can overexert themselves if they’ve expended all their energy, perhaps Fatiguing, Exhausting, or Damaging themselves as they push their body beyond what’s “safe”.

Tactical Healing: I think that there’s generally way too much healing available in combat, and it’s rarely done in a way that forces a tactical choice.  I’d like a way to change that, and preferably something better than individual errata on ever Cleric power.

Recovery: Recovery between encounters is something that I also feel there’s way too much of; there’s little sense of lasting consequences from poorly chosen or poorly executed plans.  I’d like to scale that back and make recovery available and reliable, but not necessarily instantaneous.

Flattening Trees

Posted: 12 June 2012 in House Rules
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So in general  like the idea of feats, I think that they’re implemented poorly in D&D 3.X and Pathfinder — especially as you go into the later splatbooks and such, feats become worse and worse in my perspective, both in terms of power creep and in terms of carving off things anyone should be able to do and making it a feat. In general, I think there are three things that a feat should be allowed to do: take away a penalty (as with Precise Shot and shooting in to Melee), give a bonus (as with Point-Blank Shot and targets within 30ft), or allow an action that’s normally impossible (such as Versatile Channeling). A feat that adds an effect to an action (like Stand Still) is effectively giving a bonus, and a feat that lets you perform certain complex actions (such as Bounding Hammer) is probably just removing a penalty (ie, you could attempt to bounce hammers off foes without the feat but at a high penalty). I intend to eliminate or greatly alter feats that I feel simply allow an action that anyone should be able to take (I’m thinking especially of Power Attack and I suspect there are others).

Aside from pruning the trees, I also intend to flatten them.  There are a number of feats that are chained together with prerequisites that don’t necessarily matter, and this needlessly prevents effective use of Feats to specialize and customize characters.  Why should you have to learn how to shoot accurately at close range before firing at extreme range?  And why does a character have to be 7th Level before they can gather followers? I’m not sure that last should even be a Feat (especially when it seems that it was rather fundamental in older versions of D&D).

In order to decouple chains and flatten trees in a meaningful way, though, we need to understand what the current requirements are, what those requirements represent, and whether that’s a meaningful requirement to have.  A lot of this relies on my understanding of the intent of the 3.X system (which Pathfinder is based on). (more…)

I’ve been putting off writing a D&D Next post, partly because I still feel like I haven’t fully digested the materials, partly because my group only got a half-hearted playtest in, and partly because I’ve been interested in pursuing other things, like hexcrawl mechanics and fixing feats.  On Friday, though, my post on DCs got mentioned on Friday Knight News, and I figured I should go ahead and address 5E directly. (As an aside, the FKN posts look to be neat aggregate posts, and I think I’ll keep a closer eye on Game Knight Reviews generally, as some neat thoughts are floating around there.)

So, what are my thoughts on 5E?  Firstly: this. This a thousand times.  I don’t think anyone wants or needs a 5th Edition, and the genesis of one is something of an ill-conceived reaction to the fact that 4E lost a lot of players and Retro-clones and Pathfinder has been eating WotC’s lunch for several years now.  The answer is not to give us another franken-system, the answer is to give us what we want, and produce new and updated material for the four systems everyone’s already playing.  We don’t all have to buy the same product, and WotC should be more concerned that we’re buying their product than which product we’re buying.  I’m no publishing industry insider, but it seems to me that the realities of publishing have changed a lot, and I for one would be likely to buy material for each D&D system if WotC would let me (ask my wife: I’m still buying 4E producats and I don’t even like that system).

Anyways.  On to the actual 5E stuff. It gets long.

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A long time ago, Classes in D&D were a lot different than we know them today.  My understanding, gleaned from no source more reliable than Wikipedia, is that the original D&D just had Fighter, Cleric, and Magic-User. The races were humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings, and the non-human races had restrictions on what classes they could choose (ie, there was no such thing as a Dwarf Magic-User or an Elf Cleric).  Then, the ‘Basic’ set of D&D added a few classes and shunted non-human races off into their own individual classes — there was no longer even “Elf Magic-User” there was just “Elf.”  the game gradually moved away from that to the duality of Race and Class as we know them today — race determines certain attribute bonuses and penalties, maybe some special abilities, but the bulk of the character is his Class, and the difference between a Human Fighter and an Elf Fighter is little more than “one has pointy ears, and on average will be more agile and frail.”

The argument has been made that the way we have things today is dumb because elves and dwarves and gnomes and so on are not just humans in funny hats.  They are, the argument goes, utterly alien beings that do not approach the world the way humans do, and anyone who says Race-as-Class is dumb is being unimaginative and a little racist.

The argument has also been made that Race-as-Class is dumb because it assumes that all individuals of a given race are formed from the same unbending mold, that each one that adventures does it in the same way without variation.  Anyone who says Race shouldn’t be separate from Class, the argument goes, is at best being obtuse, and probably a little racist.

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All That You Hold Dear

Posted: 8 June 2012 in Toolbox
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One of the things that bothers me, that’s pervasive in the way adventures are written, the way PCs and NPCs are envisioned, and so on, is what appears to me to be a misinterpretation of Alignment.  I’ve done a lot of thinking on the subject, but for this post I did some extra research to make sure I got things right.  So first, an interesting little history lesson.

D&D, as many may know, stemmed from a tabletop wargame called Chainmail.  From what I know it was a lot like Warhammer or Warmachine.  Each player brings an army, you move them across the terrain and make hits against opposing units.  When one player achieves some goal (occasionally simply annihilation of the opposing forces) they win. Chainmail set itself up as a conflict between Law and Chaos, and individual units were aligned to one side or the other (or neutral) so a player could decide what sorts of units made sense to include in an army together.  It wasn’t about philosophy and morals so much as which side of an Epic Conflict you were on.  As was noted on Grognardia, at this point the alignments might as well have been “Romans” and “Gauls.”

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The foundation of my new understanding of and appreciation for Dungeons and Dragons (especially at lower levels) is the Calibrating Your Expectations article from The Alexandrian.  The main focus of that article is showing the the D&D system is fairly robust in terms of modelling realism, and then dismantling the arguments that D&D can’t model someone like Einstein, or Conan, or Robin Hood, or [insert your hero here].  Justin (who writes The Alexandrian) noted later that most people walked away from that post with a new desire for low level play (not his intended outcome), and I count myself in that crowd.

Part of how Justin went about his argument for D&D’s system was to establish what a regular person under the system would be capable of.  He fished around in the DM Guide and found that most of the world — regular people — would have a standard attribute array of 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8 — only the top 5% would have an “Elite” array of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8.  So in general, regular people are lucky to have a +1 bonus in an attribute.  Further down in the post he demonstrates how a 1st level artisan would conceivably have a +10 bonus on checks (+1 from attributes, +1 from skill ranks, +3 from class-skill bonus, +3 from skill focus feat, and +2 from an apprentice).  With a +10 bonus, a character has about a 55% chance to meet DC 20, or if they’re unhurried they can Take 10 and meet DC 20 every time. Since this lets the artisan Take 10 and create masterwork products, Justin declares it to be master of the art.

What we’re coming to at this point is a notion of “how hard is hard.”  early on in my DM career, deciding on DCs is something I really struggled with, and lacking and guidelines for what a DC 13 means compared to a DC 17 or (relatedly) how much of a penalty -4 on a check is, I found myself setting DCs based on whether I wanted my players to succeed or not (and rarely or never telling my players what the DC was, which I now think is a gross mistake).

To go back to the hard numbers, we can say that a talented, untrained person has a +1 on a check; a trained person would have a +4 or +5; and someone dedicated to the craft will have a +7 or +8.  Rolling a 10 or better on d20 is a 55% chance, while a 5 or better is roughly 80% and a 15 or better is 30%.  So a DC 18 check is something that has an even chance of success for someone dedicated to the craft, and is expected to fail for even trained practitioners.  That is to say, for most people a DC 18 is a hard task.  Conversely, a DC 11 check has a fair chance of success for anyone with a bit of talent, and basic training makes success likely (75% with a +5 bonus).  A DC 11 is an easy task. A -4 penalty, though, is enough to make something that’s normally a sure thing a dicey proposal.  A -8 is enough to shut down even masters of the art.

One of the things I was glad to see in the D&D Next playtest materials was a section in the DM Guidelines about DCs.  They listed DC 10 or lower as Trivial (usually not worth a check), DC 11-14 as Moderate (requires minimal competence), DC 15-18 as Advanced (requires expertise or assistance), DC 19-22 as Extreme (beyond the capabilities of most people without aid or exceptional ability), DC 23-26 as Master (only the most skilled even have a chance of success), and 27+ as Immortal (the realm of demigods).  I think the tiers work well with the 3rd Edition skills system (though I might dispute that DC 10 checks usually aren’t work it, unless “usually” is meant to stand for “any time you can Take 10).

(As an aside, Roles, Rules, and Rolls has a post from a week ago about how Disadvantage in 5E is roughly comparable to a -3 penalty, and thus serves a similar purpose as the -4 penalty; namely, moving a task one tier up in difficulty.)

So my group is having a bit of a problem with ranged combat.  Specifically, we’re finding again and again that ranged combat is not, generally, a viable option.  There are two rules which seem to always come up during combat that result in our archer not doing any useful for most of the encounter.

Here’s the typical situation: the group is wandering through the forest (or worse and more often, a dungeon).  The come upon a group of bandits, orcs, goblins, etc. — if they’re lucky the group doesn’t notice them or is far away.  In the case of a dungeon, though, neither of those is particularly likely.  If they’re lucky, the archer might have a round or two to fire a couple of shots, while the melee characters charge toward each other at about 120ft per round (unless either side is running, in which case it’ll be quicker).  In most cases, the opposing sides are in melee essentially immediately, and that’s where the game ends for the archer.

According to Pathfinder rules, if there’s anyone between you and your target, friend or foe, the target gets cover (a +4 bonus to AC).  Pathfinder also states that if you’re target is adjacent to  a friendly unit, you take a -4 penalty to hit as you avoid hitting your friend.  So when combat breaks out, the archer is now shooting at an effective -8 penalty.  The absurdity of this situation comes when you realize that the Fighter is now rolling against an AC 13 (triuvial for our low-level group) against the hide-clad orcs and the archer is rolling against an effective AC 21 (she might as well disengage from the game). If the orcs were much more armed at all, the archer would have no chance of hitting them.

So, I get that this is “realistic” and I agree that there should be considerations for both cover from creatures and the dangers of shooting into melee, but I think it should be done in such a way that it doesn’t destroy the fun for one of my players.  So I’m looking for a consistent rule or set of rules that I can apply that are less onerous than a -8 to hit.

There are a few options I’ve considered.  The first is to simple state that Cover and Shooting In To Melee don’t stack, the same that multiple sources of cover don’t stack (partial cover is -4 whether that partial cover is from one stone wall or three intervening creatures; however, Rules As Written cover is a bonus to AC and shooting into melee is a penalty to hit). A second option would be that cover from creatures is only a -2 cover bonus instead of the normal -4, since creatures don’t fill space the way a stone wall does. A third option (which comes from some OSR conversations I’ve seen) is that there’s no penalty for shooting in to melee, but if you miss you have a 2-in-6 or 3-in-6 chance that you hit an ally instead. (Though some note that if you just go one that, you might as well aim at your high AC ally since a miss means automatically hitting the enemy… but I think that’s gaming the system.) A variant of that that I thought of would be that a to-hit roll of natural 1-4 hits an ally, or you only check the 3-in-6 chance if you fail to hit the target’s Touch AC (even if the attack is still a “miss”).

I’m still trying to puzzle this out, but I think the solution I like the best is to lessen the cover bonus from creatures (in all situations) to +2 and to check for hitting an ally if you shoot in to melee and miss.  This way the Archer is still effective (only hitting at -2) but takes a risk when shooting in to melee, and has reason to switch to melee weapons herself (making it all a meaningful choice).

If you’ve got thoughts on the issue feel free to add them in the comments.