Dungeon Delve: 4th Edition

A while back I wrote in a post that I had been absent from Dungeons and Dragons for large portions of 3rd Edition and returned around the release of 4th. For me 4th edition was quite different than the RPG games I had left off with insomuch as it deviated pretty hard away from theater of the mind. 4th didn’t just encourage but required the use of miniatures for both players and monsters along with grid based combat maps. For my personal preference I found that especially for new players the battlemap made them focus too much on what they were seeing and less on what was described. Certainly this was not all on them or on the design of 4th because as the DM I shared the blame for not adapting properly to the system and my players. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll write a more detailed post about where things fell apart for me and 4th but for now I’d like to focus on some positives.

Years on and quite deep into 5th edition it’s easier to look back and appreciate the things that 4th did right and there is one in particular I’d really like to talk about today: items. Shiny loot that we use to reward our players for adventuring out into our worlds and facing its dangers while exploring its mysteries. These are some of the most important things you can use to add flavor to your world, empower your players or in some cases introduce conflict. They run the gamut from useless to humorous and from world saving to world ending. 5th edition has a plethora to take advantage of and more importantly its easy for DMs to create their own to sprinkle throughout the world. The question is, what did 4th do that’s missing from 5th?  (more…)

Too Bored, Or Not Too Bored

I assume, like me, that most D&D or TTRPG nerds follow a bare minimum of accounts on Twitter with regards to the game type, one of them being Mike Mearls. The co-creator of 5E posts a fairly constant stream of game design musings which alone are worth the price of admission or more commonly known as clicking the “follow” button. The bonus to those interesting thoughts however is how regularly he interacts with folks on Twitter answering questions or just tempting them with the recent re-ignition of his passion for 40K miniatures. Don’t even get me started on the fact that I learned this game exists through his twitter. God dammit.

Sorry, anyways.

A little over a week ago I saw a tweet from Mike that caught my attention because he was responding to another game designer I recognized, Adam Koebel over some frustration he was feeling. Adam expressed his dislike over rolling with a +4 vs the 21 AC of a player ten times a turn and how boring it was. This comment was prompted by Mearls tweeting about how in 5E they had tilted accuracy towards the players to keep up the feeling of combat moving towards a conclusion. The brief conversation which took place below I found rather fascinating.

MearlsTweet

The question of whether or not the player’s enjoyment in combat takes design priority in something like combat caught me off-guard because my immediate instinct was to go, “Duh?”

To be perfectly honest even after thinking about it over the last week and a half that is still sort of my reaction. As a DM who only recently got to start playing on a regular basis I have to say that the majority of concern for entertaining combats should be tilted in favor of the players. There are a few reasons for that and chiefly among them is, I think, the most obvious one; there are anywhere from 3-8 times as many of them on average than there are of us.

Prioritizing the entertainment of one person over the average of five people sitting on the other side of the screen seems a bit bizarre to me.

As DMs we do the follow in the context of combat–

  • Have ultimate control over the design.
  • Can modify individual creatures and their abilities to our whim. (Within reason)
  • Create new never before seen enemies.
  • Design the terrain/setting in which the combat will happen.
  • Set the number of enemies.
  • Go multiple times per turn. Every turn.
  • Revel in the success and failure of our guys.

I’m sure there’s more but just off the top of my head the DMs already have plenty of fun even before getting into the combat proper. Even then once it starts, whiffing on a bunch of dice rolls and narrating it sounds plenty entertaining because on top of that we also get to narrate the successes of our party. Our responsibilities in combat beyond just rolling dice, as Mearls points out, is largely based around keeping things fun and fast paced. Even experienced players can fall into the doldrums of move, roll, hit or miss, pass the turn and onward and while that may make for an efficient combat it’ll quickly become dull. I want to see my players eyes go wide when I describe the result of their actions or the actions of their enemies, I want to see them react viscerally to the things going on. I don’t want them woodenly taking their turns in an attempt to just get combat over with, if they are then I’ve failed in my number one job; to keep them engaged and invested.

I believe I spoke about this in an earlier post but just in case that was all in my head I’ll reiterate it here; DMs should derive most of their joy through the things they help facilitate for the party. If your focus is on entertaining yourself over your group it will show, perhaps not right away but it will and it’ll be to the detriment of everyone at your table.

One of the responses to Koebel’s question in that thread said,

To be a punching bag apparently.

which depressed me a bit because this is the sort of mentality that leads to the Me vs Them attitude that gets DMs into trouble. When you start being competitive with the party instead of a facilitator it’s going to affect the quality of your game. Not to mention it’s a silly fight to get into anyway, out of everyone sitting at that table you, the DM, have the most power and it isn’t even close. You can’t even pretend to make a fight that lopsided fun in any respect… unless you’re a sadist I suppose. The important thing is to catch yourself before you fall into that trap and step away if you need to, DM fatigue is a real concern, we all need a break now and then.

As an aside one important thing to note is Adam is not being confrontational here as indicated by the continued conversation–

MearlsTweet2

One of the reasons I really appreciate Mearls is his willingness to openly admit the failings of a product he was at least half responsible for creating.

Adam’s comment there is something I wanted to end with because some of the responses in the thread pointed out that a +4 to hit indicates a pretty weak enemy which seems to be a fault in the encounter design; not the overall mechanics of 5E. Koebel is approaching this from the perspective of someone running a module, specifically Tomb of Annihilation, which means encounters and enemies are already laid out for him. In my experience running modules the enemies tend to err on the side of weaker in an attempt to ensure a minimal amount of variance for people running it. Higher powered enemies can introduce large unwieldy swings in the state of a combat which might be hard to handle for new DMs running a pre-made adventure. After all the idea behind them is to reduce the amount of on the spot improv a DM needs to do by providing them most if not everything they’ll need in a given scene. In most homebrewed games DMs would simply adjust monsters on the fly to modulate the difficulty in a combat to keep things interesting whereas doing that in a module can unintentionally affect pacing and overall balance going forward. Changes you make on the fly you want to remain consistent with otherwise it will become noticeable to your players. While we all know it happens its never fun to actively realize the DM is shifting numbers one way or another.

Overall it was an interesting tweet thread to follow with a good explanation on why the system functions how it does, where it fails and some ideas on how to improve it. If you don’t follow Mike Mearls or Adam Koebel I highly recommend you do, especially if you’re interested in table-top RPGs, even casually.

For now remember this, if the choice is between we the DMs being bored and our players the preferred answer will be… no one! But really, if it has to be someone it’ll be us.

I know, I know, but we do it for the players.

Until next time, happy rolling!

  • Non-Washable

Skill Monkey Like Cheatos

I won’t defend the reference in the title, but it exists and I used it. So there.

A friend posted this tweet with what I thought was an interesting topic for discussion and it’s one we did cover in part on Fox’s Squaretable. Even still there is always a lot of debate about player behavior with regards to meta-gaming, min-maxing, power-gaming or any number of other table disrupting approaches.

The question we were asked on the Squaretable was how we felt about players multi-classing into abilities that “stepped on the toes” of other players at the table. Part of the way that characters feel unique and useful in the game is determined by their skills, of which there are 18 on the character sheet as well as their class abilities and archetype.

  • Acrobatics
  • Animal Handling
  • Arcana
  • Athletics
  • Deception
  • History
  • Insight
  • Intimidation
  • Investigation
  • Medicine
  • Nature
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Persuasion
  • Religion
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth
  • Survival

While there can, and has, been some debate over how useful or important any of these particular skills can be it is the job of the DM to allow players the opportunity to explore them within the game. Not every skill needs to be useful in every situation but ideally they should come into play at some appropriate juncture. Its also important to remember that as DMs we should be open to players attempting to use these skills in unorthodox ways in order to solve problems. That doesn’t mean that we need to completely ignore reasonable limitations on what the skills cover but players can often make compelling arguments for their out of the box thinking, which should be rewarded if it has merit.

At any rate!

Touching briefly on what we talked about during the Squaretable, the argument I made is that I have no problem with characters multi-classing even if it steps into a domain already covered by another character. The caveat however is that I prefer there to be a solid character reason for doing so other than just the player thinking, “I want to do that too.”. The reason can be as simple as your character emulating or learning from a party member that they look up to, something that is born out of an experience buried in their backstory or even brought about from a recent experience.  As with nearly everything that comes with giving advice on running and playing in TTRPGs this is very table and group dependent. If you’re running a group with five flavors of Barbarian then there probably wont be a great deal of ability diversity, which is more than fine if it works for that group and their DM. The same really goes for skills as oftentimes it is probably a boon to have more than one person in the group who is proficient in a skill. This also leads us into a brief detour when talking about these checks.

Who gets to do them and how often?

Like nearly everything else there are multiple schools of thought about how to handle skill and ability checks in games like D&D. There is technically no rule that places a time or chance limit on attempting skill or ability checks as it is up to the DM to impose those limits on a case by case basis.

For instance-someone you are trying to convince into a specific course of action will only listen to your arguments for a limited amount of time before becoming angry, walking away or outright hostile to the people badgering them.

Repeated attempts to pick a lock will eventually result in a broken lock, broken picks or simply being discovered by someone patrolling the area.

You can sit and puzzle over a piece of historical, religious or arcane knowledge until your pry it from your brain but a reasonable argument can be made that you simply don’t know the answer no matter how much you think about it. A lot of times the reason I hear given by DMs, including myself, is, “You simply can’t recall the answer.” when I think what they should say on a failed roll is, “You simply don’t know the answer.” Unless of course the bit of lore somehow intersects with a piece of their backstory or life that would make sense for them to know it then it could be a matter of forgetfulness.

I’ve heard, and honestly have to agree with, DMs which have stated that the only people they allow to make rolls for skill checks are characters who have proficiency in that skill in an effort to maintain a bit of unique utility for each player character. The reason that I don’t necessarily implement this at my table is that oftentimes it can lead to a group being stalled because of failed rolls so I tend to be a little more permissive about characters making checks they aren’t proficient in. Granted this should be solved largely by making sure there are always alternate solutions to a given barrier but even with that it still feels bad to fail as an individual or a group. A sort of middle ground I’ve toyed with implementing is the requirement that your character have some bonus in a given skill to be able to roll for the check, while a zero bonus disqualifies you completely. If that feels too permissive to DMs you can always set a disadvantage or a -5 penalty to the roll due to not being proficient in the skill. As always you should experiment or talk with your group to find something everyone can agree on.

So, back to the question that brought us here, how do I feel about players who try to do everything? Like I pointed out with the question we were asked on the Squaretable for me it boils down to a difference between player motivation for their character build vs the characters motivation for living their life that way. A player who builds specifically around the concept that their character should be the best at everything, all the time to me speaks to a player who will not deal with inevitable failure very well. It’s not to say this guarantees future problems but I feel the odds go up significantly in situations like this. Effectively it’s putting the mechanics before the narrative to an extreme level especially as this is something the game already does regardless of the character. The mechanics of the game are already built to nearly ensure that every character by default is good at a small variety of things. This “skill monkey” build to me is one that I would like to see a thoughtful explanation or backstory so as a DM I know what drove them to be this kind of person and that the player is doing it for, lacking a better phrase, the right reasons.

Why?

These sorts of atypical characters will draw a higher than average amount of roleplaying and story interactions, or the spotlight, just by virtue of their wider range of utility and exposure by simply being able to do more than everyone else.  For other people at the table who are limited to their specialties this can quickly diminish their feel of uniqueness in the group. I can see a lot of avenues for how a character like this could be roleplayed in a way that doesn’t overshadow other players but it is a tough needle to thread even for the experienced. Unfortunately for these types of characters hanging back and allowing for others to excel in their specialties has the reverse effect by diminishing their effective role in the group, so in the end, who is going to volunteer to lose out? The best answer is that no one should and the most likely answer is that in the end it will fall to the DM to try and fix this problem through narrative and combat design on top of already having to run the rest of the game. One way or another in this situation the burden of re-balancing the game falls somewhere instead of on the rules where it, for the most part, should stay.

It can’t be stated enough that nothing in these games should be ruled out unilaterally as not belonging, bad form or otherwise undesirable at a given table without some thorough discussion. That being said I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with stating that there are things in these games that are more or less difficult to pull off as a player or DM. In a co-operative environment like D&D what you bring to the table is almost as important for other peoples enjoyment as it is for yours so be cognizant of those you’re embarking on a journey with.

Then get down to business and roll some dice!

  • Non-Washable