Archive for August, 2012

A short little post while I chew on bigger problems.
Unofficial Games has a post up about using a stealth system to help determine the occurrence of Wandering Monster events.  It’s a neat idea and something that I already do in a loose way: ie, if the PCs do something noisy I have the world around them react, and in certain environments that reaction can be guards showing up to see what’s going on.  Zzarchov seems to imply that there’s a more-formal system he’s using that tracks “suspicion” points, and he doesn’t go into details of how the system works (except generally that noisy things generate suspicion and at some point that suspicion becomes an encounter).  It’s not clear if there’s a threshold, or if it works like old Mage: The Ascension Paradox in that the GM can choose to slowly “burn off” suspicion in smaller encounters or let it build up into something Big and Bad.

I think it would be interesting (and it’s again something I implement informally) to use a similar system to track whether the PCs become aware of wandering monsters, whether it’s a sneaking goblin raiding party or a lumbering ogre looking for a meal.  Not sure exactly how you could translate that to this “suspicion points” system — either you’re telling players “he’s gained enough points, you’re suspicious that there’s something just a couple passages away,” or you’re dropping hints each time the creature gains points and waiting for the players to decide they’re suspicious enough to check it out (“an innocuous sound?  The GM said it, it must be important!”).

Dungeons & Dragons Documentary

Posted: 23 August 2012 in The Hobby
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As a general rule I don’t intend to plug various Kickstarter (or IndieGoGo, or whatever) projects on my blog; that’s not what the Toolbox is about.  But I wanted to mention this one because, whether you love it or hate it, I feel like D&D is a piece of our cultural heritage as Role-Players.  If you can support the project, I encourage you to do so.

(Except When It Does)

So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break.  Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity.  I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.

At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter.  I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does).  Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way. (more…)

D&D Next Packet v0.2

Posted: 21 August 2012 in The Hobby
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So while I was away the world changed, and we suddenly have a new D&D Next Playtest Packet.  I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but lots of other people have: once I’ve worked my way through it I’ll add my thoughts to the conversation and probably try to run another playtest (I’m particularly interested to see if my players take to the character creation system or not).  Apparently, this process is expected to continue for 2 years.

In the mean time, there’s a summary of changes included in the packet and I thought I’d share my initial impressions on that.

Changes

Hit Points: everyone, both players and monsters, have lower hit points.  I’d have to look at what exactly this means, but I think it may be a good thing.  (Though, I’d have to finish my investigation of What Hit Points Mean before I can really say.)

Surprise: rather than changing your initiative (-20 to your roll), Surprise now just prevents you from acting at the beginning of combat (essentially just like always).  This is probably a net-positive, but I really liked the penalty-to-roll mechanic.

Opportunity Attacks: exist again, but only trigger if you leave a character’s reach.  I think this gives characters more maneuverability around Giants than around Orcs, but I’d have to check. They also added a disengage action, so you can run away without provoking an attack.

Ranged Attack in Melee: rule only applies to ranged weapons, not spells.  I’d have to refresh myself on what the rule was to be sure of what this means, but again I think it’s probably good.

Short Rest: can be taken even if you have fewer than 1 HP left.  Not sure if that really changes the dynamic or not; apparently it lets a henchman use a healing kit on you, which seems reasonable.

Long Rest Variants: They say they haven’t changed the rule, but they’ve added variants to try out.  I’m tentatively intrigued.

Conditions: Some conditions were altered; I don’t remember having a problem with any conditions before.

Armor and Weapons: the tables have apparently been heavily revised, which is good because they needed it.  Medium Armor no longer penalizes Move Silently.  Don’t know what I think of that one.

Monsters: New stat block format, new abilities, and an XP-based encounter-building system.

Spells: Changed spell disruption rules (now not just Wizard-specific), clarified what you need to cast (your voice and a free hand), and added and revised spells.

Classes: Changed Cleric’s Turn undead and Channel Divinity.  Added combat superiority and fighting style for Fighters.  Changed Rogue’s Sneak Attack and Skill Mastery.  Too vague to really comment on at this level.

Misc: added a skill list (yay), associated skills with attributes (boo), changed the word “Theme” to “Specialty” (huh), and changed some feats.

Oh, by the way…

Did I mention that none of this matters any more?  OK, that might be a little bit of an exageration (for some of you), but WotC also announced that they’ll be releasing their “whole back catalog” of D&D products in electronic format.  I’m not sure what that means, either in terms of what exactly will be available and in exactly what form, but if it means I can hand them a reasonable amount of money and get all those 2nd Ed. treasures I apparently missed out on, color me excited.

On Cheating

Posted: 20 August 2012 in The Hobby
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There are a few people around who have recently made posts about cheating in RPGs — so I’m going to reference a post from three years ago on the same subject.  I think the old post addresses the topic better, and the same ideas can be applied to the newer posts.

Anyways, the post attempts to break down who cheats, how they cheat, and why they cheat.  To save you from reading a years-dead post and comment thread, here’s the gist of it:

  • GMs cheat because it saves players from failure, or makes things more cinematic, or lets the story continue as it ought. This is both right and just, and GMs should feel free to do just so. Players can’t do anything about it and just have to trust that the GM is making the game better.
  • Players sometimes ‘cheat’ because they make honest mistakes, or they’re bad at math.  These are harmless and probably don’t mean much in the long run.
  • Bad players sometimes intentionally cheat, lying about die rolls, re-using expended powers, and intentionally applying bad math. If caught, they probably won’t do it again.
  • Very bad players go so far as to doctor their dice or have variant ‘builds’ of their character available so they can address niche situations better. These guys cheat maliciously and will probably keep cheating until there’s an uncomfortable confrontation.
  • The best solution to cheating is to not directly punish the offender, but passively punish them by rewarding everyone else.

I have a number of problems with this post.

GMs Cheat and That’s OK

I’m going to go ahead and say that it is in fact not OK for the GM to cheat.

Think of it this way: you’re at a football game, and the visitor team is up by 6 points.  The home team gets the ball and carries it down the field, eventually getting a touchdown.  The refs throw a flag and call the ball dead at the 2 yard line, not because the ball was dead, but because it makes for a more exciting game if that happened.  Then the team plays again and gets a touchdown; they go for the kick but it hits the upright and bounces away.  Now the refs call it and say that hitting the upright was ‘good enough’ for the extra point and the home team wins by 1 point.  What an exciting victory!

Except that it’s not; it’s not exciting and it’s not a victory, because it didn’t really happen.  Sure it’s a cool story, but it’s just a story that the refs are telling and it has nothing to do with the team’s actual effort or performance.  And it’s not really a victory because the team didn’t really overcome any obstacles (the refs just declared that they’d done so) and it had nothing to do with their play anyways: the refs knew what they wanted the outcome to be and orchestrated things so that’s how it happened.  In a way, the teams were irrelevant.

This is what it’s like when a DM cheats.  He can do it easier than any other player in the game because his role is to portray the entire world, and he can justify it by saying “this makes a better story” or “this makes it more fun.”  But the cheating player can make the same justifications for why his cheats are OK, too, and now we’re back in 3rd grade yelling “bang, I shot you!” and “no, you missed!”  Lawlessness and chaos.

A GM, like a referee, should be impartial to either the success of or methods used by the payers to engage the situations he’s presented them with.  If he’s not, if he’s always there to pull their fat from the proverbial fire, eventually they’re going to recognize that what they actually do is irrelevant — the story will progress essentially the way the GM decides it will.  And depending on how egregious the GM is about cheating in the name of “fun,” the player’s whole character might well be irrelevant — he’ll catch the ledge or not, hit the target or not, persuade the duke or not based on what the GM has decided, and nothing more. In large doses this is absurd, but it’s frustrating even in small doses.

Players Cheat and Should Be Punished In-Game

Sometimes players cheat.  I would hope that it’s always accidental but sometimes it’s not and we need to know how to deal with that.  Here’s my solution: don’t play with cheaters.

You don’t always know up-front that they’re a cheater and you should probably give them the benefit of the doubt — take them aside after the game and confront them directly about their cheating and how it’s unacceptable.  If that fixes things, great; it never needs to be brought up again.  If it doesn’t fix things, politely ask them to leave; and by “politely ask them to leave” I mean “tell them in clear terms that they are no longer welcome to play in your game.”  Done.

What you shouldn’t do is punish them in-game for cheating.  That’s passive-aggressive and kind of a dick move, especially if you haven’t explained to them what you’re doing and why.  It might ‘fix’ the problem, but it’s childish and demonstrates that you aren’t an unbiased GM.  If you punish cheaters in-game, now they’re going to wonder if you punish them in-game for other out-of-game reasons, like favoring the wrong sports team, having excessive body odor, or eating the last piece of pizza.  Even if none of that’s true you’ve eroded their trust in you, and that’s not going to be good for the game in the long run.

Why Are We Cheating Anyways?

I have no idea why cheating is even a factor.  If you’re sitting around a table with your friends pretending to be dwarves and wizards, what exactly are you gaining by cheating?

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

I’ve got a few different irons in the fire right now, maybe a half-dozen half-started posts.  Real Life — the stuff I do between thinking about and playing RPGs — has been more intense than usual lately, and that’s put a real drain on my energy.  So we end up with half-posts like this.

Some things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Initiative, and the flow of combat in general, is kind of wonky in most games.  I want a system that rewards a character for a high Initiative bonus as well as rewarding characters for a high Initiative score.  Some games do one or the other, but I’m not sure anyone does both. (Dr. Gentleman has a series of posts about combat that may cover some similar ground, or not; I haven’t read them yet.)
  • I want to get back to thinking about Hit Points in D&D 3.X; my first post was really just a preliminary introduction, and I haven’t gotten around to the real meat of hit points.
  • I don’t like the way Magic is split in D&D, or the way Class Spell Lists are broken up; but I haven’t thought hard enough about it yet to be sure that changing it won’t make ever caster just a Wizard with a funny(er) hat.
  • I’m intrigued by what I’m hearing about running RPGs through Google+ — my first gaming group (my brothers) is spread out over several states now, and the potential for running a game with them again is very attractive.  I may finally get a chance to play RIFTS.
  • More and more (and more) I get the feeling that system doesn’t matter, because the core of role-playing is making choices, and mechanics are just ways to arbitrate consequences.  A system is necessary, but does it really matter what system?  It seems lots of people answer that with an emphatic “yes!” and I need to do more research on that. Minutes after writing this I already feel the lie in it; I have to confess that system does matter, but I haven’t unpacked that concept enough to say how, when, or why it matters — that’s what I want to do research to understand.

Once life lets up on me a bit, I plan to address some or all of those thoughts.