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…)

Whats In A Name?

Whether it’s in fiction, marketing, D&D or those less important things like children the name you give something can be very important. A name is one of the first impressions that people get in many circumstances and whether you chalk it up to amazing coincidences or not there could be some important consequences to those names.

Who knew that the real problem with your kids was that you didn’t name them “Musician”, “First Baseman” or, “Responsible”? Ah well, Dave and Jennifer will have to make do with what they got.

I’ve thought often about one of my weird creative quirks which is that I can take anywhere from five minutes to several weeks in order to name anything ranging from streets all the way up to entire worlds. Its imperative to me that a name fit and feel right which is fantastic when you’re trying to explain your process to someone who was nice enough to ask. Waiting until something feels right in a creative sense is like telling someone to complete a puzzle while wearing a blindfold.

“I dunno, it’ll just feel right when you get it.”

I’d tell me to go fuck myself at that point or at least glare pointedly. Unfortunately a lot of the time its kind of the truth at least, I think, for the majority of us. I have heard people who can name things creatively and uniquely straight off the dome and its fascinating every single time. I want nothing more than to take a peek inside their brain so I can witness the process that formed their answer, not because it would reveal any secrets but because like watching an episode of “How It’s Made” I just want to see the machinery in motion. I remember vividly an episode of the Penny Arcade Podcast where Mike asked Jerry to come up with a cool alien insect name on the spot and without hesitation he spouted the name “Broodax” (Skip to ~28:30) which ended up spawning one of their all time funniest comics.

So how is it done?

I’ll tell you this much straight up, I don’t actually know. 

I can already hear the disgusted scoffs wondering why I even bothered to write this, which is fair, but that answer was not to say that I don’t at least have a couple basic ideas which I would love to share. The other thing I wanted to briefly say is why I think its important to write about things that I may not have definitive answers for, to let others who may struggle know that its not unusual to get stuck. Whats more is that its not bad to get hung up on things you think are important because you want them to be good, memorable or evoke a certain feel. The fact that we care enough to get stuck trying to really nail some particular aspect should not be a reason for frustration but rather an opportunity for some introspection. If for no other reason than because we’re passionate about it. We may not be able to adequately enunciate why that is but it might be worth exploring.

Not too long ago I was faced with something like this myself when my friend Nate, who plays in my D&D campaign, offhandedly told me following a description of a centaur’s hair-do, “You’re like the George R.R. Martin of hair.”. I didn’t dwell on the comment much in the moment but ever since then whenever I’m writing up a description I have to laugh because that seems to be the one characteristic I expound on the most.

Why? Even if I wanted to spend time in this article explaining it I honestly couldn’t if I tried. It’s not something I do on purpose but of all a characters mundane physical details I apparently like describing their hair. I don’t put in any particular effort or extra time to do it, it just sort of… happens. If you find something like that by accident or someone points it out to you, explore it. Embrace it and have fun with it, whatever it might be.

At any rate, back to the subject at hand… which was—Ah, right,

It may be because you’re a perfectionist or simply so that you can avoid situations like this one that Matt Mercer found himself in on Ep 44 of their Tal’Dorei campaign. Or Wil Wheaton’s somewhat legendary meltdown (~00:45) and ensuing running joke over Mike instantly ruining all of the work he put in to naming his character. Effort he hope would save him from a stupid nickname but only resulted in being called “Al” fifty seconds into his first session.

Either way what this is all meant to say is the time spent on finding the right name for whatever it is you’re doing is a worthwhile endeavor and something that I think most creators struggle with from time to time. I cant even imagine the stress you’d have to go through naming a newly discovered species of something, I mean that thing is real and that name will exist forever, at least for me the things I name generally stay confined to my Google Drive, a notebook or my kitchen table and a group of inebriated players.

So if we’re going to put in the effort to make good names then what are some tips about how to do that?

Read. I don’t mean that to sound like the whole “It’ll feel right” thing we discussed earlier but it really is true, read and read a lot. Part of creating regardless of your field is understanding what else already exists in the space within which you work. If you’re lucky enough to have such a unique idea that you pioneer an entirely new area then this shouldn’t really apply to you, you get to set all the rules going forward. For the rest of us it helps to see examples, patterns and discover naming conventions that we like. For instance I went through a period of my creative life where I really, really like having apostrophes in the middle of all my names. No joke, first name, last name, both, single or multiple apostrophes, it didn’t matter, I liked the way it looked but I wasn’t actually concerned with how it would sound. A lot of this came from reading and not really saying the words out loud to myself, it was a visual exercise that didn’t extend much beyond that.

Now, its important to note that you’re not looking to simply take the things you like and use those or imitate them as closely as possible with the stuff you create but it can provide helpful starting boundaries for you to push beyond. The easiest way to explore into new territory is by taking a look at what has been discovered already. By no means do you have to to go looking for new territory to play around in as the styles, tropes and, conventions that have already been discovered are perfectly valid frameworks to use.

History. Read some history, especially cultural history and the important figures therein as well as geographical information to see how they named their cities and landmarks. Were they named for people, events, landscape or some myth born from the area? These can help you build your own lore and identify when a name or style feels right for what you’re designing. If you want to really get into it you can look into how naming conventions changed as populations began moving and mixing more, as well as how it lead to the consolidation and shortening of surnames.

Random Generators. I know it can feel a little like cheating to use these and I’m not saying you should use them as your own original ideas but they can certainly be a good resource when you’re stuck and need something to get the wheels turning again. Sometimes you get stuck on the rails of an idea and before you know it you finally disengage in the middle of nowhere with zero idea how to get back. Use these to get the idea train back on track. The same goes for rolling on dice tables for name generation. I rarely if ever use the actual result from it but it can sometimes spur an idea for a name I really do like. As much as we all love Bob the NPC there are only so many times you can get away with it and once you introduce Bobbina with a straight face its time to up your game.

Most importantly beyond all the reference materials and tools to help inspire you the biggest thing to remember is that you connect with it. That it feels right for your intention and evokes the feeling that you had in mind. It may sound funny to others or may not have the intended effect but like in every other endeavor a 100% success rate is little more than wishful thinking. It’s not an argument to keep you from aiming high but don’t be discouraged if you fall a bit short, everyone does now and then, it’s part of how we learn to improve.

Have fun with both your successes and failures, take inspiration from the discussion the names prompt and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when something you come up with is unintentionally funny. Mark my words, it will happen.

If all else fails, the group doesn’t really have to survive their next encounter, do they?

As I said at the beginning for me this is a difficult process to put into words but what about you? What tips and tricks do you use to fill up your maps and lists of characters with interesting names?

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