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

My Way Or The Highway

The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.

This quote is most commonly attributed to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and whether or not he did actually utter those specific words the truth of them definitely was reflected in how he spoke about the game. Gary was rather vocal about his desire for people to not be weighed down by the rules but instead inspired by them to take the game in new and exciting directions. The community at large has certainly embraced that tradition and used D&D as a stepping stone to create their own fantastical worlds, classes, races, items, quests and much, much more.

In a system that relies so heavily on the imagination of a group of people in order to function the rules would seem, at best, a secondary concern. Although if we all think back to our childhood for a moment and remember that one kid, you know the one, who when playing pretend was always the best at everything and vulnerable to nothing? That’s why D&D has rules. The rules act as a scaffolding over which you can drape an infinite number of epic adventures for your players to traipse around in. Above all of that this basic framework allows players and DMs to modify the game and expand on its core content without the need for a lot of concern of unbalancing it. It can always happen certainly but there are plenty of tips and guides provided to help you bring your vision to life.

So why all this talk of the rules and structure of D&D? Well like my other posts I was spending some of my free time browsing through advice threads and came upon one where a player asked if they were being unreasonable disagreeing with some houserules a DM set out. I’ll put the list of modified rules below and then we’ll discuss some of them and why they might exist and what it could say about playing at that table.

  • Fumbles possible with every attack. Cannot Lucky out of fumbles.
  • No Initiative Rolls, everyone gets a flat 10 + DEX (Or WIS, Houserule) Mod. I brought up a Human Variant Assassin with Alert getting a free SA every encounter, and was told to stop trying to break the system.
  • Multi-Attackers only have to hit once. After that, all attacks afterward are guaranteed hits.
  • Roll for stats. If you don’t like what you get do a 27 point buy.
  • Most likely will run into a CR4 Monster with 4 level 1s.
  • DM has a list of Banned Spells for Wizards. It’s not a short list.
Now over the years I’ve certainly seen some far more restrictive table rule lists than this one and I certainly try to never tell a DM that their particular rules don’t work or shouldn’t be used. It’s their table and they should run it how they see fit. I’ve pointed out in threads of the past that the result of this is really that you limit your player pool to people who agree with your style. There isn’t anything wrong with that unless you complain that no one wants to play under your specific set of rules modifications which is the prerogative of players.
 

So, if I’m loathe to tell DMs that their ideas are flat out wrong and that everyone has the freedom to choose where, when and how they play then what is the point of writing this post? Excellent question. If I’m perfectly honest with you it’s because I was working on something else that I couldn’t get out of my brain coherently so this was my backup. That being said I still think this is something worth talking about and I would have written it up sooner or later.

As DMs we deal with a lot of headaches some of which are a result of rules conflicts, unclear rules or different interpretations of rules which will often be seen in RAW (Rules as Written) vs RAI (Rules as Intended) arguments. Speaking of which I have a good one for that coming up soon-ish. Some veteran DMs know of these pitfalls and will lay down rules in their campaign pitch documents or during a Session 0 so players know going in how specific things work in their setting. Sometimes DMs will get caught off guard and will need to make an on the spot ruling during a game which will dictate how things work for the rest of the campaign for consistency. In that situation you can always make a temporary ruling and then come back later with a better researched opinion if you care to but ultimately your word is law.

So, onto the list –

First off we have fumbles, now full disclosure I actually like causing characters to fumble their weapons or items as it almost always gets a pretty hearty laugh from the table and everyone has a good time. This is very table dependent and I usually avoid doing it in very tense moments where any little thing can swing the outcome of a major engagement. Another problem with this fumble rule that I see is that if you fumble on a roll of natural 1 that means you’re doing it roughly 5% of the time that you’re in combat. A DM I’ve gotten to know over the past month had a great way of putting it when he said, “Think about how insane it would be if you got into car accidents 5% of the total time you spend driving.” Proficiently wielding and using a weapon in the a D&D world is a matter of life and death, adventurers even moreso as their life centers around seeking out danger in any place it can potentially be found, along with the profit from facing it. Very few adventurers would ever survive if they lost their weapon 5% of the time they spend in combat, this is exacerbated even further when you consider characters who attack multiple times a turn. Outside of the mechanics of it, while it can be occasionally funny, it feels bad as a player to have one or more turns eaten up by a single bad roll. As DMs we really do strive to keep those “feel bad” moments to a bare minimum because as Gary reminds us, fun is the ultimate goal here.

I’ll circle back around to the initiative thing during the wrap up as I think it illustrates something about the overall list.

Much like the decision on initiative I think this one sort of speaks to the attitude leading to the changes however this one has some additional balancing issues that I can see. For one PCs are not the only people in the game who get multiple attacks and creatures with multiattack or legendary actions could become serious party threats in short order with just one or two decent rolls. I’m not sure the time saved on rolling warrants the extra danger, especially if you aren’t explicitly running a high danger campaign. The danger certainly goes both ways but over the life of a campaign the characters will be attacked far more often than they will spend attacking, skyrocketing the chance of this turning out badly.

The next two I don’t have particular problems with as I find giving players alternatives for fixing completely jacked up stat rolls is just a simple feel good thing you can do. Characters with an amusingly low dump stat can certainly be fun to play but if you’re going in hoping to play a high fantasy hero then it can be a serious bummer if you catch a run of terrible rolls.

A CR4 monster depending on the choice for four level 1 characters is difficult but doable. A good early challenge to really give the PCs a triumphant moment I think speaks to the core of combat in D&D, if all combat is little more than rolling over goblins and orcs it can get stale fast. CR4 ratings also include one of my absolute favorite early enemies, the Flameskull. If used properly that little floating lantern of fiery death will haunt their dreams until they finally manage to kill it for good.

Last on the list was the one that really caught my attention as removal of abilities and spells is something that shouldn’t be done lightly, especially if it isn’t being replaced by anything. Its definitely understandable to limit the use of game breaking combinations but as of right now I don’t think there are any that stand out in 5th edition D&D. Also the user in question notes that it’s “Not a short list” either which I would find concerning as a player looking into playing a Wizard at that table. Without a concrete list of what spells were removed its hard to know exactly what this particular DM saw or experienced in past games to lead him to make this decision. Even without that list however I think it warrants a little exploration.

As I mentioned above part of being a DM means running your table in a fashion that makes sense to you and allows you and your players to have fun. Houseruling aspects of the game that you feel adversely affect the overall experience or don’t allow you to run the game you want are well within a DMs right to change. However removing things like abilities or spells risks unbalancing or outright crippling classes that rely on them as part of their core identity. If the issue stems from how a spell is written or how it interacts in the game then communication with the affected player is a much better starting point where a potential compromise could be reached prior to deciding on outright removal.

From my own personal experiences I have been considering ways to re-imagine spells like Detect Magic and Identify because I feel like they remove certain avenues of exploration from the game with far too much ease so I understand the impulse.

Ultimately what this list strikes me as is an attempt to streamline sometimes time consuming aspects of the game for convenience and not necessarily balance or mechanical clarity. There are certainly benefits to be had by taking steps to ensure that the game runs smoothly and efficiently but enforcing mechanical changes as a way to get that seems punitive and somewhat lazy. On a recent GM discussion I got to partake in a guest, Taran, suggested during combat using an “On deck” notice to let players know when their turn is coming up so they’re reading to go when its time. Simple reminders and things like sleeved info cards that are easily accessible for complicated spellcasting classes can solve many efficiency issues. Players getting to know their classes and things they will have to do every round like multi-attacks, concentration checks or anything else come with time and DMs need to be cognizant of that need going in. The purpose going in with modifications like this may be well intentioned but must be approached with the proper amount of care and consideration on how it may affect the table as a whole and not just on your experience as a DM.

All of this is not an argument against experimenting with different ways to run your games in an attempt to improve the experience for everyone but that like any interdependent ecosystem changes must made mindfully and unselfishly.

What changes have you made or do you wish to make to your game to improve it? Are you working on any houserules that you hope to use as a standard template for the future? I’d love to hear them!

Until next time, happy rolling!

– Non-Washable