Saturday, March 4, 2017

Disappointing Combat in D&D

SPOILER ALERT: I'm writing this while watching the newest episode of Critical Role (ep. 88). If you don't want to have minor combat details ruined for you, wait to read this until you've seen the episode.

Read at your own peril.

In this episode, the party engages in an underwater battle with a kraken. The setup is short but sweet, and then, as much D&D combat is want to do, the play slows to a crawl as soon as initiative is rolled.

Now, given that this is all submerged, I understand slower movement speed. But that's not what is going on here. Each player's turn takes one of two forms:

1) excruciatingly long because they are trying to figure out how the rules apply to the unique circumstances.

2) breathlessly short because they are grappled and fail to escape.

The short turns are effectively not turns at all, they are just more pauses in the action. Here is an example of an excruciating turn: Grog is swallowed by the kraken and he is blinded, restrained, and slowly burning in acid. When it comes to his turn, he doesn't have anything to do but "swing his weapon" to deal damage to the kraken from the inside. Of course, the whole reason he is restrained is because he is being squeezed by the kraken's insides. He doesn't have nearly enough space to swing an axe or hammer, but because the rules tell him he can do nothing else, he is forced to make nondescript attacks that don't reflect the narrative reality at all. Needless to say, the turn is slow and uninteresting.

Worse than that, it's how you are supposed to escape. If you deal enough damage to the kraken from the inside, you might get puked out. But as we've already established, that makes little to no sense. Like I've said before on this blog, if there is a rule for how to do something, people are much more likely to use the rule rather than make something up, even if the rule is lame. We think within the box most of the time.

I can't think of an opportunity for more dynamic and exciting play than when a player in swallowed whole by a huge creature. Unfortunately, that's not what happened on that turn or the next. It took an incredible leap of logic by Grog's player to pull out his magic jug that makes oil. Then, when Keyleth the druid is also swallowed immediately after, the big risk of setting off a fireball and purposefully igniting the oil in the jug pumped life back into the encounter. The kraken pukes them back up and the real battle begins.

About an hour later, the real battle has ground to a halt again (before the actual encounter ends) and it becomes a game of how to escape through a portal when everyone keeps getting grabbed and restrained by the kraken. The party's goal is to leave without killing the beast, but it's "stickiness" and the underwater environment make this goal extremely difficult. After several rounds of the party trying to break free and getting pulled back, Vax the rogue is swallowed while unconscious.

This is followed by another grueling turn for poor Keyleth who is barely able to keep the all the alter-self, animal shapes, and druid beast-shapes straight.

The issue here is not Critical Role, the players, or the DM. It's the rules. The rules are designed in such a way as to punish any "get-in-get-out" encounters. Every enemy is sticky in D&D, and the kraken is the king of sticky things. It has two average parties-worth of tentacles which auto-grab and restrain after dealing damage on a hit. The party members that are restrained lose approximately a third to a quarter of all their actions during the fight. They just fail their escape rolls and do nothing. That's not even counting the swallow ability, which is essentially a nigh-inescapable grapple.

It's painful to watch the party members on screen look utterly exhausted by their lack of options. The combat ends in an intense way, but that's all thanks to the roleplaying and DMing that are superb. They were succeeding in entertaining themselves (and us viewers) in spite of the rules, rather than with them.

I haven't thought about D&D from a design standpoint in a while, but these same issues are always on my mind when I do. There's got to be a better paradigm for handling combats like this, where everything devolves into repetition of two or three optimal actions until math saves the day for one side or the other.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

New Spell: Prognostis


By weaving the magics of time and consciousness around himself, the sorcerer sees into the future a short distance.

The GM narrates some vague and "just off-screen" moments in the session's immediate future. After that narration, the player rolls six d20s, reveals them only to the GM, and chooses one of the results. Then, the GM chooses one of the results. Alternate choosing until the player and GM both have three results.

The next three d20 rolls that would be made by the PCs are replaced by the player's chosen results (the player chooses which result to use and when, each only being used once). Likewise, the next three d20 rolls made by an NPC or monster are replaced by the GM's chosen results, in the order he/she chooses.

The idea with this spell is that the caster gets a flash of immediately subsequent events. A couple rounds of combat, or a minute of exploration. The GM could reasonably give the caster some info about the future of the game session without revealing too much.

If there is a falling scythe trap ahead, the sorcerer could envision the party rogue sliced in half just up the hallway. If a monster is going to ambush the party, the caster could witness the moment through the creature's eyes, so the party knows where the creature is coming from, but not what it is.

The dice results part of the spell is meant to simulate a moment in which the player knows what can happen, but not exactly what will happen, especially considering that each choice they make, and that the NPCs and monsters make in response, changes what is possible for the remainder of the spell's effect.

I think this spell should be a level 6 spell. Just a feeling.

The origin for this spell idea is that all future-seeing spells in D&D suck. At level 9, you get BS like Foresight, which gives you narrative advantages, but virtually no mathematical effect (+2 AC and Reflex? Come on....).

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D&D Classes without Math: Magic-user

Wizard, Magic-user, arcanist, etc. It is a staple of D&D, and perhaps the single most interesting class, based solely on their capabilities. Spells are essentially the only common thread (mechanically speaking) through all the iterations of D&D, and wizards are the undisputed masters of spells.

But what does that mean when you take out the math?

Well, that question has perplexed me for months. This post was supposed to go out with the rest of the "without Math" posts. Clearly, it did not...

Because I can't really say what a math-less magic-user would look like. It has a kind of backwards quality about it that the other classes do not. Every fighter can do the same things, as far as the game is concerned. The details about how they do it, i.e. what weapons they use, how much armor they wear, whether they focus on Dexterity or Strength...none of it really matters. They are still a fighter because they do fighter stuff. Hit things with weapons, absorb some damage, protect the less combative party members, run into the danger.

But...what is magic-user stuff? Fireball? Magic missile? Scribe Scroll? Reading magic? There is an argument to be made that, yes, that is magic-user stuff. If you can do those things, you are a wizard. But not every magic-user ever learns magic missile or fireball, or how to scribe scrolls, or even how to read magic. As more and more spells are printed, and the boundaries of what magic can and cannot do (and how easily it can or cannot do it) has expanded, we have found that very specific types of casters are now viable. Casters that don't use spellbooks. Casters that even change the very idea of how mortals can access magic.

Also, "fireball" and "protecting the squishy guys" are not the same level of abstraction. "Fireball" would be better described as "AoE damage." "Magic Missile" is best described as "unavoidable magic damage that's cheap." Of the four core classes, none but the magic-user can do those things. But is an illusionist, who knows no damaging spells at all, a magic-user then?

Must we abstract further and higher? Maybe the magic-user is the class that makes sweeping changes to the environment the party is in, either clearing obstructions or creating them. This definition would then include things like knock and illusory terrain, which are yet more staples of the D&D wizard. Looking over the wizard spell list from 3.5, I think this definition is rather complete. But it is so general that it could take any in-game form whatsoever. Wizard, sorcerer, illusionist, evoker, swordmage, abjurer, warlock...even divine casters could fit within this definition comfortably.

And yet, this definition leaves us with nothing but "casts spell" as the 'math-less' portion of a magic-user. Essentially, we're back where we started.

We don't want to have to write up all these different classes, because we would never be done. If we want to be able to write up a coherent set of rules for all magic-users (math-free, of course), we have two options:

1. Make it wizards only. If you can cast arcane spells without a spellbook, it's because you are a monster or demon or dragon and not a PC. Humanoid races have only one way to learn and use magic, and that's spells and spellbooks. If you take D&D as written, remove every non-wizard arcane casting class, you have this system. There is still a lot of room here. Every type of wizard specialist is available. Spell selection is wide open and creates meaningful differences between all wizards.


2. Make it up as it becomes relevant. Have no written rules in your system for spells and magic. Instead, make magic entirely an in-game discovery and learning process. If you want to have the PCs fight a dark mage, write up the basics of how that guy knows/can use magic. This could be any micro-system of your choosing. The most obvious is a spellbook with a finite number of spells. What system you use to prevent characters from casting these spells endlessly each day is up to you. Then, if the PCs decide to investigate this dude's magic (presumably after turning him into a fresh corpse), they can pursue it, and you'll know exactly how it works and how powerful it is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why the ranger class sucks these days...

To understand the fall of the modern ranger, it is helpful to study the rise of the modern bard. When I first started playing RPGs over a decade ago, the bard looked like this:

Now I first want to say that I mean no disrespect to the artist that worked hard on this piece. I think it is a great piece of art, but a bard this is not. The musical instrument is a hardly visible afterthought (he's wearing a lute on his back) and his outfit doesn't scream "storyteller" or "poet" but rather "rogue" or "eccentric."

And this perfectly describes the bard class (D&D 3E) that this picture was used to represent: a mixed bag of uncertain purpose. It has middling attack bonuses, a middling spellcasting ability, mediocre spell selection, and its class-specific features were so situational and odd as to be laughable.

Hence, this comical representation of the bard throughout 3rd edition's reign.

But now! NOW the bard looks like THIS:

Holy moly! Look at that badass fantasy character! A sweet guitar that sticks out like a sore thumb (in the best way) the subtle wood flute hanging around the neck, the lack of any weapons or aggressive garb. This bard is something unique unto itself. The colors are bright and stylish. Even the character's haircut is edgy and cool. This is a socialite. This is a world-traveler.

And just like the picture, the 5e bard is the king of classes. Highly versatile, interesting, and competent. A skilled magic-user, a healer, and combatant, and even a battlefield inspiration.

It is admittedly a bit overpowered, but at least it's playable in an unironic way.

So what has the ranger done in this same timeframe?

Well, the first ranger I ever saw in a D&D book looked like this:

This is someone I can picture roaming the wilderness for months on end. The armor might be a little overdone, but it also looks rugged and that is important. The weapons are sharp and deadly, there are torches on his back next to his bow, and he is wearing a green, elvish-camouflage cape. He's ready to face the wilds. And he even looks like he has, given his bronzed skin tone (for an elf).

This 3rd edition ranger was not as playable as it seemed, but it was playable nonetheless. Favored Enemy is a very tricky feature to make work in a standard D&D campaign, and that was the main draw of the class. Worst case scenario: your 3E ranger had the high attack bonuses, decent hit points, some fun combat perks to start with, and nice skill points and spells to fill out the weaker areas of the character. If your party needed to track anything, or survive in the wilds, you needed a ranger, no question.

What about the ranger now? Well........

She's either a drow, or a purple elf. Neither of those scream "wanderer of the forests" to me like the tanned elf from before. She is also wearing a bright blue cape and puffy white sleeves. Not exactly camouflage. 

Something tells me that this piece was just supposed to be a warrior-type drow, and when time came to put a ranger picture in the 5e Player's Handbook, somebody grabbed this one, drew a bird onto the bow, and called it a day. Not cool.

And worst of all, the 5e ranger is by-far the least popular class. Only three skills? Someone that survives on their own in the wild with no help only gets three skills from their class? Favored Enemy gets nerfed, even though it was already mediocre at best. And don't even get me started on the current state of the animal companion... what a joke. It's so unpopular, in fact, that WOTC has made it a point to update it completely. Are the updates enough? Eh. I'm on the fence.

The Upswing

So what is wrong with the ranger? Why does it blow nowadays? Why is it "weak"?

Because it doesn't do anything. Sure, it can do all the normal character stuff fine. In fact, it can do all the normal character stuff (moving, hiding, fighting, seeing, hearing, etc.) more reliably than any other class. Move through brambles unhindered, fight invisible things, not lose its way in the woods, etc.

But those things aren't exciting. If a rogue could only hide, and not sneak attack, it would suck (by modern standards). Well, the ranger is exactly that. Sure, he or she can run through a field of pricker bushes without getting slowed down or hurt, but once on the other side of the field, they will put you to sleep with their lack of unique proactive choices.

Doing things was the focus of my Ranger Class without Math from a few months back. If you don't wanna read that through, here is the lowdown.

I give them two major weapon choices in combat: bows and knives. They get to choose whether to engage from afar or close up in each fight, not as a one-time character feature. No more melee OR ranged rangers. Each ranger is both.

I give them an awesome and totally independent animal companion to control, which is just one more sweet and proactive choice they get to make each turn. Every ranger gets one.

I give them the ability to make natural traps, and search for natural traps. Boom. Interesting choices in non-combat time other than tracking.

I give them herbalism and bush medicine to make them healers because if rangers don't know that isht then they die all alone in the woods. Just makes sense, and is uber useful for the party.

See how easy that is? But just like the bard because more capable and proactive between 3rd and 5th editions, the ranger fell from grace. How ironic that the tracker and wayfinder class has lost its way.

But hey, now you know how to fix it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

That Bard's Got SOUL!

Boy, it's been a long time since I posted. Better put some super useful and groundbreaking content on here to make up for that.

Fact: I'm tired of lutes and panpipes being the tavern background music. So, here we go:

Soulful Bard's playlist - Roll them d20s and hit play!

Note: Songs have no lyrics mentioning post-medieval technology.

1. You Were Never Mine (Cover) - Janiva Magness

2. The Midnight Hour - Wilson Pickett

3. In the Still of the Night - The Five Satins

4. Try a Little Tenderness - Otis Redding

5. Don't Leave Me This Way - Thelma Houston

6. California Dreamin' (Instrumental) - Baby Huey [TURN YOUR VOLUME DOWN]

7. Moanin' - Charles Mingus

8. I Hear the Angels Singing - Eric Bibb

9. Sherry Baby - Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons [Note: Mentions "twist party"]

10. Unchained Melody - The Righteous Brothers

11. This Magic Moment - Ben E King and The Drifters

12. Can't Take My Eyes Off of You - Frankie Valli

13. What's Love Got to Do With It? - Tina Turner

14. Runaround Sue - Dion

15. Duke of Earl - Gene Chandler [Note: this one is particularly appropriate for medieval settings.]

16. The Great Pretender - The Platters

17. Chain Gang - Sam Cooke

18. Natural Woman - Aretha Franklin

19. When a Man Loves a Woman - Percy Sledge

20. I Wish It Would Rain - The Temptations

Saturday, July 16, 2016

5 Goals Your NPC Organizations Shouldn't Have

There are three types of NPC groups in fantasy RPG worlds:
  1. Groups the PCs can fight. Example: the cult of an evil demon lord.
  2. Groups the PCs can receive service from. Example: a merchant guild.
  3. Groups the PCs can join. Example: giant-slayer mercenaries. 

No DM has trouble with the first group. They are the easiest to think-up and use in the game.

The second group is easier than the first, in that their motivations need not be world-shaking or nuanced. They can just be a trading band, after all. But they are also more difficult than the first group, because it is much less natural to roleplay a merchant than an evil cultist, considering how scant merchants are in most fantasy novels and D&D plot-lines. It's very similar to writing: the mundane stuff is the hardest to make believable because you haven't ever given much though to it.

Where many D&D worlds fail, however, is with the third group. I'll give you some examples.

Black-Flame Zealots: If these aren't the coolest divine group ever, I don't know what is. They are Assassin's Creed meets ninja meets Nepalese holy-warrior. If there was a novel or video game about these guys, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, they are a clandestine order of monks who work primarily out of city hideouts and only battle with the enemies of their god. They are like a thieves guild, but with more smiting and less casual sex.

How in the world do you DM a PC that is a member of this group? How do you convince the PC that going off to a random dungeon and looking for treasure is a reasonable quest given his profession? If an old lady says she has ROUSs in her basement, why on earth would a member of the BFZs offer to help her? Don't they have a dark god to keep at bay?

How about the Cavaliers? Mounted soldiers? Really? That's the kind of character you are going to play in this dungeon-crawling game? One who needs a horse at all times to have any fun?

The deeper you dig into all these supplemental classes and groups, the more you realize that over half of them cannot be played.

Sure, you can take the Purple Dragon Knight prestige class from 3.5's Complete Warrior, but take a look at their description, and the paragraph-long disclaimer about player-character members...

D&D 3.5, Complete Warrior, p. 70, Wizards of the Coast

In the end, a PC Purple Dragon Knight has no rank, no authority, no experience, no service record, no commitment to future service, nothing. They have nothing but an honorary title and a slew of class abilities that seemingly appear out of nowhere, given how little the PC actually has contact with their affiliate group...

These disclaimers are included because the designers know that players want the cool features and titles, but none of the responsibility. The PCs still plan to explore and search for treasure and kill monsters as their primary lifestyle, so being a full-time (or even reserve) member of some army is not on their to-do list.

And why should it be? This is Dungeons & Dragons, not Soldiers & Sergeants. If you want to play a medieval warfare simulator, play one. D&D is not that.

This is a reality that DMs and PCs need to accept: limit yourself so you can focus your game and do it well. Players don't need access to infinite character concepts to have fun, they need access to a handful of character concepts that fit the world and the tone the game is going for. DMs don't need infinite NPC groups from every walk of life, they need a couple dozen groups, the majority of which should be adventuring groups that PCs could easily join while still maintaining their normal day job.

There are a million reasons why an NPC group would be invested in dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. I'll put a bunch into a blog post sometime. But until then, here are five goals your joinable NPC groups shouldn't have, because they create direct contradictions with the adventuring lifestyle:

1. Operate in a particular area, e.g. a specific city, forest, or even country.

If the PCs ever want to leave, either the PC members have to quit, get some sort of negotiated leave time, or create a convoluted reason for why it is relevant to the Elvish Defenders of Leafwood that Joe the Ranger go off into a desert and dig up some magic scrolls about turning lead into gold.... These groups are type one or type two: enemies or service providers.

2. Research a particular thing unrelated to dungeons, e.g. feywild specialists, divination experts, very specific monster-hunters, etc.

This shouldn't be confused with something like a weapon-specialist group. I'm talking about any group where actively adventuring would cut into their study time, rather than be study time. Sword masters-in-training can hone their skills anywhere, but students of Fey lore have nothing to learn while infiltrating the underground city of the Derro. These kind of academic groups are also type two.

3. Serve a particular (non-deity) leader or country, e.g. a king or empire.

Unless he is the king of dungeon exploration, I don't want to hear about any PCs being in the kingsguard.... These are type one and/or two.

4. Pursue sedentary or mundane professions, e.g. blacksmiting, fishing, etc.

You don't have time to smith while you are slaying dragons and stealing their treasure, so smiths don't do that stuff. They stay home and smith. If you are a smith, you aren't a PC. If you are a PC, you aren't a smith. No ifs, ands, or buts. Type two again.

5. Enact a modern moral or ethical sensibility.

I'm not saying every group should be made up of assholes, but if your PCs come across the Loving Sisters of Peaceful Coexistence, do NOT let them join. Peace and non-violence are for farmers, not adventurers. Sad but true. The players can agree with their message in spirit, but they have to realize that their entire lifestyle (i.e. the entire game) is premised on violence and stealing, whether it is against other sentient races, monstrous races, or just plain ol' monsters. Evil in D&D is real, and it is out to get you. Monsters exist, and they don't only attack when threatened by oil spills or aggressive human expansion. And since the monsters are evil, might as well take their stuff when their dead. Right? Peace can be an ideal in your world, but it cannot be the mainstream. This could be type one or two.

Now go make some NPC groups that love spelunking and looting. I'd join that shit...

Thursday, June 30, 2016

How to Escape the Railroad D&D Game: Get off at a station

Quick announcement: Haven't posted in a while (got a full-time job), but plan to keep posting as often as possible. Will most likely shift my focus from game system design to adventure design, as that is where my head is right now.

"Some players, Mr. DM, just want to watch the world burn." 
 - Someone afraid of sandbox games

"Players don't panic when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying."
- Someone afraid of railroad games

Oh that unanswerable question: railroad, or sandbox? So short, and so mystifying. Within its seemingly binary choice are paradoxes and contradictions enough to fill entire college courses. See: Free Will vs. Determinism.

But let's boil the idea down to this: every DM wants their players to feel as though they are making choices that impact the world, but how do you do that without needing to literally create an entire world spontaneously?

Some will argue that you make a little "sandbox" and let the players do whatever they want in that little area. Easy. My response is this: even generating a tiny area that is a "free-roam" zone for the players is an unimaginably huge task. The idea doesn't ever scale down. PCs can cover a lot of ground in one session. You can't pre-generate all those possible paths, even in a very limited sandbox. And if you're thinking, "you don't generate everything the PCs can do, just the things they are likely to do" I say, welcome to a railroad game....

Meanwhile, if your argument is that you create some basic details and improvise the rest, you've entered into a similar paradox. If you magically incorporate your details into any path the PCs take, then you are running something VERY close to a railroad game. Best described as the "Quantum Ogre" effect. On the other hand, if you are willing to entirely abandon what you have prepared for the sake of maintaining player agency, then why prep at all? What are the odds that your players will choose exactly what you have prepared for them without railroading them at all?

To further confuse things: For every player that will purposefully avoid a pre-built story for something they think will be more exciting, there is a player who will do the opposite: ignore any hook or moment of inspired DM roleplaying for the never-ending slog through what they see as the "story."

The only way to appease both of these player types is to give the entire decision process over to the players, and then hold them to their choices. Your game must have cause and effect relationships, or the "watch the world burn" types will have no boundaries. Just so, the game needs to have very regular moments of choice, or the "go with the plan no matter what" types will quash everyone's creativity.

Okay, enough theory. Let's talk about putting this into practice.

Step 1: Prepare shit. There are no two-ways around it. You have to prepare sessions if you are going to give them any substance. Dynamic combats with interesting monsters, unique NPCs with believable spots in your world, competent antagonists, and many other parts of great D&D only thrive in the pre-game creative process. Maybe your random tables, acting, and improv are so good you don't really need to prep. If that's the case, I hate you.

Step 2: Accept that session 1 is railroad-y. Every D&D party has to suspend disbelief for long enough to accept that they are together, that they are at least allies in some respect, and that they will continue to work together until further notice. This is not an easy narrative step when your players are supposed to be brimming with "free will" and "agency." As the DM, you have to put your foot down and tell the PCs, "Welcome to session 1. Your characters are are all gathered in ______ for _______ and are planning to do _________. Go." Get the game going, regardless of whether every player is 100% into the mini-plot you have for the first session.

Step 3: Everything in the world has space for a hook. You have to bake hooks right into the body of your game world. Every corner should conceal another hook. But you need to expand your definition of what a hook is. Magic items are hooks. (What is it? Who can tell us? Where are they?) Information is a hook. Overheard conversations. Letters. Gossip. Everything. (The baron's raising an army? Why? Where? Someone mentioned the God of Socks. Who is that? Where can we learn about such a deity?) People are hooks. The dark spells cultists use are hooks. Statues are hooks. Paintings are hooks. EVERYTHING CAN BE A HOOK. Write a sentence for each good one you think up, and remind your players that these hidden treasures of adventure are everywhere if they pay attention and ask questions.

Step 4: Pace your sessions correctly. This will end up being a whole other blog post, but the short version is this: be smart about how long to spend on things around the table, and when to initiate them. Big combat after 4 hours of roleplaying session? Probably a poor idea, especially if it's getting late. Remember: you can always stretch things out with good roleplaying and description. You cannot, however, speed things up arbitrarily. When players focus on something, the time management is under their control. Prepare enough content to fill 50-75% of your session, then stretch it as needed.

Step 5: Finish your sessions at a choice, and have the players make it before ending. This makes #4 doubly important, because step 5 depends of successfully executing step 4. Each session should contain minimal "choice" points at the beginning and middle, because the more your players can veer off the path mid-session, the harder it is to make that session tight and satisfying. BUT, a major choice about what to do next that is placed at the end of a session allow players to tell you exactly what to prepare for next time. This choice point doesn't have to be "multiple choice" either. It can be "open response." So long as you have a week to prep what the PCs choose to do, they can do anything they want. Now THAT is agency.

Hooks are not choice points unless the players have nothing more urgent to do. Hooks can be kept in the back pocket of the party until some adventure time is freed up. This maximizes player agency, because it allows the players to choose the next part of their story organically, based on what most interests them about your game world. Free yourself from the trap of the escalating railroad campaign! You are better than that!

But let's be real: at the end of the day, even this style looks like a railroad. Pre-planned sessions that the PCs can't really change much once they are prepped by the DM.

But railroads can take you anywhere. Railroads (in the sense of pre-prepared sessions and stories) only become constricting when the players get an urge to jump off mid-way between stations. Solution: put in more stations. One at the end of every session. Keep the sessions focused and let them flourish into more depth instead of more plot if you have extra time in the moment. Your players will naturally want to follow mini-stories and plots to their immediate ends. Keeping players focused on a plot for one session is not an impossible task. 

Trying to milk that one major player choice for three or four sessions of material is asking for trouble.