Thursday, October 29, 2015

What "Say Yes" Really Means, Part 1

I am an RPG player and rules tinkerer who came into the hobby in the 'new school' age. D&D 3/3.5 was my first tabletop, pen and paper RPG playground. From there I went to D&D 4, Pathfinder, every other OGL system under the sun, and now I am playing mainly D&D 5.

In the design diaspora that was D&D 4, its aftermath, and the announcement of D&D Next, I began wandering the internet in search of RPG wisdom. Little did I know just how vast the halls of the RPG internet realm were, and how much the players of 'old school' games had to say.

Let me tell you, the blog posts were titillating, and the house rules, desirable.

But coming from a new school background, and having no old school players nearby to join in with, I had to take all this information and decode it like some ancient codex. What was it that these old-schoolers were so crazy about, and how did their games appear to have such a laid back and easy-going feel to them, while simultaneously sounding deadly and challenging?

Well, you will have to ask them, not me. I'm sure I couldn't explain it half as well.

But! There was one old-school rule that has clanged around in my head for ages, which I have only recently come to understand. Sort of like how Buddhism has seven stages of enlightenment. Or maybe not like that at all. I don't know.

That rule is this: Say Yes.

So simple! And yet so complex!

At first I thought that Say Yes meant you should never shoot down a player's idea. If the player says they want to attempt something, don't tell them "No, you can't do that" or "No, your character wouldn't do that."

Weeeeeell, that's not really it. It is important to have an open mind, as a DM, and remember that the game is at least partially about entertainment. That doesn't have to mean silliness, but it does have to mean engaging your player characters in events and challenges that they find interesting. So, if you prepared a dungeon crawl based around helping the bartender get rats out of her basement, but your players want to accompany some randomly generated NPC, who they met in the bar, on his trip to some randomly generated town because it sounds like fun, weeeeeeeell.... you better start thinking up possible road encounters.

But the Say Yes rule goes even deeper than that. Say Yes is a rock-bottom credo about where the drama and action are in your game. The more you Say Yes, the more you focus the challenge and drama onto the most important parts of the game, and onto player skill.

Here is a little hypothetical D&D type situation: the party (a human fighter, halfling rogue, dwarven cleric, and elven wizard) is fleeing the underground goblin city, and they are being chased by a half-a'gabillion goblins. They come to a chasm that is juuuuust slightly wider than is comfortable. The wizard has cast fly on himself, picked up the rogue, and safely made it to the other side. The fighter and the cleric remain.

In a world without Say Yes, they ask the DM "Can we jump it?" and the DM says: "roll jump checks." The fighter probably has a 50% chance to clear the chasm. The cleric will almost certainly fall to his doom like a stubby-legged anchor.

What if they asked the DM about their odds of clearing it? He/she might say "eh, not great." But then what? Grappling hooks? Magic? Pitons and rope for godssake? If the DM wants to keep the adrenaline pumping, there is no time for that, in-game or out of game.

And you can't toss a dwarf, obviously.

So what is the solution? Not put any chasms in the game? Oops, we have a heavily armored dwarven cleric, I guess we can't ask the party to jump anywhere this campaign.

In a world with Say Yes, the DM assumes that the characters can accomplish the task before them, though a sacrifice may be necessary. Does the jump have a DC? Some target number that they have to roll a check against? I don't know, maybe.

But should it be relevant? No!

When the players for the fighter and cleric say "Can we jump it?" the DM should say something like "YES, but you think you'll need to ditch the backpacks and weapons to clear the distance."

See what this does? It gives the players a whole scope of options to fiddle around with. It says "Here is the situation, and here are all the variables. Figure out a solution, if you can, and preferably one that doesn't get everyone killed."

Now, those two players are practically running around the table figuring out a plan, "Quick! Toss your backpack over the chasm. You guys on the other side will catch them, right? Can we toss our weapons? What if we tie rope to our belts and then to the ends of our weapons? Could we jump the gap and then pull our weapons over from the other side? Let's try it."

Now you've got compounding variables too, because you have allowed your players to do something other than succeed perfectly or fail perfectly. The DM makes a roll, and the goblins show up just before the party can pull their warriors' weapons over. The goblins grab the weapons and begin pulling the opposite way! Now what? Does the party cut their losses, literally, and lose their weapons? Do they get into a tug-o-war with a whole cadre of goblins? Will one of them be pulled back to the other side?

"But wait!" Some of you may say, "How can they jump the chasm without a jump/athletics/acrobatics check?" Isn't that what those skills are for?

Well, I'll have an answer for you in part 2.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Difficulty of Tasks and Leveling Up

I've posted before about a different way of handling leveling up, so that there isn't so much number crunching to be done. I've come across a new one since then which involves slightly more math, but is quite slim and efficient.

The idea comes from Basic Fantasy RPG's optional rules section. It uses a simple table for ability check DC's that applies over all levels. The specific math doesn't matter for the sake of discussion, but if you want to know, it looks like this:

Character Level               Ability Check DC
1                                        17
2-3                                      16  
4-5                                      15  
6-7                                      14 
...                                        ... 
20                                        7 

The assumption here is that a DC's static value doesn't change with the task being attempted, but rather with character level. Characters will get better at doing things as they level up. Much better in the long run, but that covers all twenty levels, so it isn't very dramatic from one level to the next. BFRPG only suggests it for ability checks. I would add skill checks to this as well, just to make things as cohesive and simple as possible.

So, climbing that sheer cliff becomes easier and easier as you level up. And the same goes for smithing that cool sword, or tracking those goblins through the woods.

I've come to love the advantage/disadvantage rule from D&D 5th as a way of quickly and easily adjudicating whether something is easier or harder than usual. That combined with this DC list is actually a very nice way of determining the target number for anything outside of combat.

I guess what I'm getting at in this post and that other post from a while ago is that if you have numbers simultaneously going up on BOTH sides of the equation, then you are doing yourself and your system a disservice.

Think about it: A level 1 rogue in D&D 3.5 has roughly a +5 to lock-picking, and comes across DC 20 locks in all his dungeon exploits. That's a target number of 15 on the d20, or 30% chance of success. Then that rogue levels up and up and up and gets to level 10. Since he's been putting ranks in lock-picking a bunch, his bonus to that is now +15. But all the locks he comes across are now DC 30. So what is the target number on the d20? Still 15! That means this rogue still only has a 30% chance of picking the locks he comes across.

In fact, this was even more egregious in the DMG for 3.5 and 4th edition D&D, where the authors gave you a table for appropriate DCs for things as the characters leveled up, which got harder instead of easier for the same tasks and checks. So climbing a rock wall for level 1 characters was a DC 15 climb check, and THE SAME ROCK WALL for level 20 characters was a DC 25 climb check.

I'd go so far as to say that this encourages bad DMing habits. After all, if locks keep getting harder and harder to pick, then simple locked doors are as appropriate a challenge for level 10 characters as they are for level 1 characters, right?

WRONG! If your level 10 characters are still sneaking up to doors in dungeons and banking on a good roll to pick a lock without alerting wandering monsters, then you haven't delved into the true potential that is high level RPG play.

That level 10 rogue should be able to pick that lock no problem (or at least with much LESS problem than his level 1 self). But that shouldn't be all he has to do. This time around, there is an encounter going on in the room that the rest of the party is trying to shield him from, and the walls are slowly closing in so time is an issue, and there's contact poison on the doorknob so a failed check results in paralysis.

THAT'S the difference between the locked doors in front of a level 1 rogue and a level 10 rogue. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Simple Fumbles, Ammo Tracking, and Weapon Breakage

Here is a table to simplify and get some milage out of three things that are often made way too complex in retroclones and homebrew systems: fumbles, ammo, and weapons breaking.

"If you roll a natural 1 while attacking with a melee, thrown, or missile (ranged) weapon, roll (or flip a coin) on the table below."

                                       MELEE/THROWN                                       MISSILE
EVENS/HEADS     Weapon is dropped or gets stuck            Out of arrows/bolts/bullets
ODDS/TAILS                   Weapon breaks                         Bow string snaps, sling rips, etc.

There. Now you don't have to track arrows, or arrow tokens, or say that you get back half your arrows at the end of combat, or keep track of notches on your weapon, or calculate hardness, etc. Now you just have a 1 in 40 chance of breaking your shit, dropping your shit, or being out of arrows.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

No More Attack Rolls

I ran a one-shot of 5e the other day. It ended in quite the unpredictable fiasco, but that had everything to do with the plot and nothing to do with the rules.

The one rules hurdle that I did encounter was a situation in which needing to roll attacks slowed down combat.

I've posted about not using attack rolls before. And since that post, I even found a post on B/X BLACKRAZOR from five years ago that talks about the same exact thing. I would recommend both posts. Though this post will be the only of the three that deals with a specific case in point.

So in this 5e session, I had the PCs exploring a small dungeon. They came to a hallway, one side of which was blocked (for the sake of combat), but the entrance was open. The players walked past three puddles of gooey salt, which began to rise up and form a disgusting kind of undead, which then attacked. These undead were based entirely on the standard 5e zombie monster, except their attacks dealt +2 damage against opponents they had already struck once, due to their slightly acidic bodies.

Which is all to say, they had an attack bonus of +3 and an AC of 8....

The combat was relatively interesting, but just before it finished (and two PCs had hit 0 HP thanks to the difficulty fighting in a tight hallway), there came three rounds in which the paladin and the zombie thing he was fighting missed each other with every attack.

On the first round that this happened, I did my DMly duty and described what had caused the misses as appropriately as I could.

Zombie misses: "The zombie creature is slow, and now that the other ones are dead, you can focus on this one's attacks and you dodge the slam easily."

Paladin misses: "You are trying to end this fight as soon as possible to help your friends, and for a moment, you get ahead of yourself and swing your greatsword above your head for a heavy strike. However, the low, stone ceiling of this dungeon hallway catches your blade and stops your attack."

...but then they both missed again. AND AGAIN! WHAT?

How can I describe that? Does the zombie slug monster dodge the attack? The thing with an 8 AC... evades? No. That makes no sense.

If this were a one-in-a-million thing, it would be negligible. But it isn't one-in-a-million. The average AC of the PCs was about 15. That meant the zombies needed to roll a 12 or higher to even touch the PCs. That's a 55% miss chance. Meanwhile, the Paladin had a +3 to attack rolls. That meant he should have hit a lot. On any roll but 4 or less. But in those three rounds, he rolled a 2, a 3, and another 3.

This is not a lone case. I have experienced many combats which had rounds where almost NOTHING happened thanks to the to-hit rolls being low.


So, let's speak on the game implications of not having attack rolls. In bulleted list form, for your ease of use:

  • No attack rolls means the only way to distinguish who is accurate from who is not is through narration and description, i.e., if your character deals no damage with a few of their attacks (say, from armor or shield damage reduction, or some such mechanic), then the GM may choose to narrate those attacks as misses rather than hits that were deflected or not hard enough.
  • Spells which have particularly meta-game effects, such as true strike and blur, which modulate chance to hit, either have to be changed to modulate damage instead, or removed completely.
  • Time at the table will be saved. That's just a given, since only about half as many rolls are being made during each encounter. The B/X BLACKRAZOR post speaks largely to that point.
  • No attack rolls or bonuses makes it harder to distinguish between different types of monsters, as there can effectively be no mechanical difference (as far as singular attacks go) between the inaccurate but strong brute and the precise but only moderately strong skirmisher.
  • The relationship of level to combat accuracy/power has to change a lot. Of course, if you use Relative Level instead of Objective Level, that problem goes away. *poof*
  • Monsters with multiple attacks will need to be scrutinized so they are not too hard to defeat.
  • Magic weapons cannot be relied on for their mechanical bonuses to accuracy to scale encounters. Instead, stronger/tougher monsters would have to resist or be immune to non-magical weapons.
  • It makes the fighter's job less important, in that it no longer gives them a complete monopoly on combat. They may still have the highest damage with weapon attacks, but other classes are just as capable of attacking.
  • Armor and other protection now become much more valuable to players, because they are the only things standing between them and a toothy demise once that 50% get-out-of-jail-free-card is no longer in the game. If a goblin with a knife runs up to you and you are unarmored, you are in trouble, no matter who you are. Of course, if you survive the attack, then the goblin is certainly in trouble.
  • Which is to say, combat is decidedly more deadly, but still within the control of the players. Random spikes of damage should not be as big a factor in character death as simply choosing to continue or initiate fighting when you are not up to the challenge.
  • And perhaps most importantly, it brings combat into a certain philosophy about dice rolls: if the two options when rolling a die are either success, or maintain the status quo, you have created a false sense of conflict. Dice should be rolled ONLY when someone is going to win or lose. If a possible outcome is "nothing changes," then why were those dice even rolled?
I'll do saves tomorrow, I think.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Do 5e Backgrounds Really Help Role-playing?

The answer, of course, is all in how you use them, and what your goals are.

For me, playing an RPG is about two things (having fun/being with friends needing no restatement):

  1. exploring a world/scenario by making choices for the character I have created
  2. feeling that those choices have led to progress in my character and the world being explored
But to know what these mean in game terms, we have to be specific about the definition of 'exploration'. 

From an old-school perspective, that's easy. Exploration is literally physical exploration. Dungeons, caverns, sprawling necropolises, etc. Enter the dungeon, beat the monsters, find gold and treasure, sell the excess for better equipment, level up your monster killing abilities, repeat. That's the exploration-progress cycle in a nutshell.

But there are many people who play fantasy RPGs who do not focus entirely on dungeon delving. (Like me, and my groups.) Some people like politicking, some like family drama, some are big on war-stories, others enjoy gaining power through magic or fame.

The thing that all of these (including the regular delving) have in common? Your character learns something. They learn how to kill a basilisk, where the wizard keeps his lab, how to cast a spell, who murdered their uncle, etc. Exploration means nothing if a character isn't changed by it, and character change is universally driven by learning.

So for my tastes, the REAL cycle is: learn about the world or yourself, make a choice, repeat. 

Enter 5e D&D. When I first took a look at those backgrounds, I thought "Thank god! A little something for the storytellers. Love it."

But now, I feel differently. It seems to me that these backgrounds are once again only a good way to increase storytelling and reward role-playing if you use them to learn more about the world and yourself. Otherwise, they are just another few pluses and minuses on your character sheet. In fact, they are almost worse than just a few pluses and minuses, because it implies a kind of en media res about the whole thing.

You were a soldier. All the development and learning from those days is said and done. Now you're a treasure hunter. Yeah, you might use that military past to help you become a better treasure hunter, but your struggles and experiences as someone who was in the military are done. All of that exploration and learning was done before the game, and now cannot be done again. The story is half over before the first session of the game....

This even goes beyond backgrounds. Consider the wizard class in any edition of D&D you desire. It is always implied that the wizard isn't just some guy who picked up a spell book yesterday. The fighter and the rogue can just be "some guys" before session one. But the wizard always has a backstory that could be the premise to several young-adult fantasy novels.

D&D isn't designed to tell the story of a normal guy becoming a great wizard. D&D is designed to tell the story of an okay wizard becoming a great wizard. There is no inherent problem with that, but it will frustrate you if that first kind of story is the one you want to tell.

Or, you could just play the sorcerer. In my years playing 3e, I loved the sorcerer class far more than it deserved. Mechanically, it was near identical to the wizard (just much worse), so it isn't very inspiring on that front. But the sorcerer is arguably one of the best storytelling setups in 3e. The main points were roughly this:
  • Nearly all sorcerers start gaining their weird powers around puberty.
  • They are shunned and kicked out of their homes/villages/cities because of their weirdness.
  • Therefore, the "average starting age table" in the 3e book made sorcerers the youngest. Seriously, it was like 13 + 2d4 years. Like 15-21 years old.
  • And lastly, most sorcerers, since even their parents shun them, clearly have no idea where their powers came from. Unsurprisingly, most are motivated to find out.
That setup is all forward momentum. The backstory is perfect, because it is a mystery. It is something that creates a goal for the character, rather than just giving bonuses or letting your character say "oh yeah, I know that" during some random GM monologues about the lore of the world.

The sorcerer agrees with my tastes even further, however, because it most clearly follows the "exploration = learn something" rule. By delving deeper into the origin of your powers, you will inevitably learn more about them and become more powerful. The story and mechanical goals of the game intertwine.

For my money, I'd love it if every character had as much built-in interest in their immediate future as the sorcerer class in 3e. I feel 5e backgrounds got close, but where there should have been more "and here is what an ex-soldier might be looking to achieve in the future..." there were bonds and flaws and personality traits instead.

Those help define how your character might do something, but they don't help you with what your character wants to do. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

d8 Instruments for Fantasy Settings

No explanation necessary, just roll baby!

  1. This wind instrument is the semi-dissected, semi-cured carcass of a trout or other good size fish, which has been prepared so as to allow air to be blown into a mouthpiece near the tail, and through the fish's digestive tract to the gills. A bladder just before the gills is grasped by inserting a hand into the fish's mouth, and is squeezed to control air flow. Sounds like bagpipes mixed with a saxophone.
  2. This simple instrument sounds like a kazoo, but is made of a shed snake skin that has been flattened and filled with a sticky, greasy substance. The tail of the skin is blown into, and the air comes out the other end raspy sounding, and the skin itself whips around like a broken party blower while in use.
  3. A jaw harp/mouth harp/jews harp.
  4. A belt of various skulls, appropriately sized for easy carrying by the wearer, which are hit with soft mallets to produce a sound like a wooden block. Bigger skull = lower sound.
  5. A didgeridoo with multiple mouth holes and only one horn, for multiple people.
  6.  This is a set of brass pipes that stand on its own. It has one mouthpiece at the center, which the player blows into, that immediately splits into two separate pipes leading to separate horns. Attached to each horn are pumps that resemble bellows, which are both operated by the blower, one in each hand. The sonic effect is that of two trombones played at once.
  7. This instrument is a wheel of small drums set up to resemble a windmill, though much shorter. The player sits in front of it and pumps two pedals with his or her feet to spin the wheel, and then hits the drums with wooden mallets.
  8. An air tight brass box is placed under a large pool of water. Outside the water are hoses which are attached to bellows operated by helpers. The musician, highly praised for their skill, holds their breath and lowers themselves into the water. They then twist knobs attached to the box which release air at varying rates through variously sized holes. The bubbles created on the water's surface make a each note of the music, though the musician can never hear the music they are currently performing.