Posts Tagged ‘roles rules and rolls’

On Chases

Posted: 4 September 2012 in Toolbox
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Role, Rules, and Rolls posted a “Simple Chase Rule” a couple weeks ago, where a character can forgo their normal movement rate for a turn in order to roll for a random movement rate.  In D&D/Pathfinder terms, a character who moves 30′ in a round can move 10d6′ instead (or I guess you could simplify it to 6-spaces and 2d6-spaces if you cared to).  This gives a range of 10′ to 60′ (with an average of 35′) which is a huge range to represent bursts of speed or mishaps/stumbling.

Right off, I like the idea that Roger is going for here: with static movement rates, you can determine the results of a chase before anyone moves anywhere; the faster party wins, or in the case of matched rates whoever can outlast the other.  That’s rather dull, and adding in a roll shakes it up a bit.

That being said, I’m not sure it actually works, at least not in D&D and not with characters or groups who have different speeds.  For example, a human can move 30′ or average 35′ (at the risk of moving only 10′ in a turn).  A kobold can move 20′ or average 23′ (rolling 6d6+2), hoping to get as much as 38′ at the risk of only going 8′.  Assuming a Human is running from a Kobold and chooses to NOT random-roll the chase, he will move away at a steady 30′ pace.  If the kobold doesn’t random-roll the human will pull away at a relative 10′ per turn and the kobold has no chance to catch up.  If the kobold DOES random-roll, he will average a speed of 23′ and the human will pull away at a relative 7′ per turn, and the kobold has no chance to catch up.  Only early on, <i><b>if</b></i> the human and kobold are within 10′ of each other, does the kobold have a chance of catching the faster human, and then only if the koblod gets a particularly good roll and the human doesn’t put any special effort in to running.

Of course, this is all moot given that D&D/Pathfinder has a full-round “Run” action, where the character throws caution to the wind (granting combat advantage) and moves at a rate of 4x their normal speed (120′ instead of 30′).  Combining these would give something silly like 40d6′ (between 40′ and 240′ depending on the whims of the dice) and it breaks down from there.

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

So I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to prepare for a quick little hex-crawl game to run with my wife.  A big problem for me is, apparently, “information architecture” or “how do I know what I know?”  I thought I’d use some space here to talk about what my plans are, structurally.

I’m planning on using a six mile hex as the basis of my map, and I’ll plot geography based on Welsh Piper’s guidelines (though it’s a bit of a kludge since I’m not using their Atlas Hex, template for now).  The bulk of my hexcrawl system I’m going to be taking from The Alexandrian (though it seems to have stalled after the 7th entry); I’m planning on keeping the hex structure invisible to my players, and Justin has a good system for tracking progress over the grid, getting lost and getting found, sight lines, encounters and encounter distance, and so on.  I’ll be keying each hex to a ‘default location,’ and then building up encounter tables. (Of course, on a 180mi by 180mi map, that’s 800 to 900 unique locations to key…)    Justin hasn’t given us an example of his tables yet, and I may use some combination of the one-page encounters, multi-table encounters, and hand-keyed encounters I’ve mentioned before.

I’m using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it matters to track them). I’m going to have 4-week month (aligned with the cycle of the moon), 13 months in a year (for 364 days total).

I’m putting together a year of weather per Gnome Stew’s suggestion, and may be incorporating other systems from Dragon 137 and the Wilderness Survival Guide (both of which I’ve recently purchased).  I’ll probably use a tracking sheet not unlike the one that inspired Gnome Stew.

I feel like I’m still missing some structures that I need to account for, and this doesn’t get into the real meat of the setting (ie, the city-states and societies that will be the focus of the crawl).

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).


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’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.


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.)