Sunday, November 22, 2015

Boring RPG Races

I've talked about fantasy races before. I mostly enjoy the classics, especially when they are done well. If playing a dwarf in your game feels very different from playing a human, even though it's the same ol' Tolkien-esque style of dwarf, that's a good fantasy race in my book.

And just like a good bartender, if you can put your own spin on a classic while keeping it recognizable, even better.

But what really makes me wince are the plethora of half-ass'd "other" races that show up in RPGs. These are generally based on a handful of over-used or copied ideas that are good once, or have had all their awesomeness sucked out of them in the process of making a facsimile.

Let's talk about these handful of dreadful ideas so we can all avoid them like the plague.

The Anthropomorphic Animal
You know what are badass? Lizardmen. And you know what else are badass? Lionfolk. And so are Tiger People. But you know what's lame? A game where all three of those races exist. This is one of those "one-and-done" situations. If you put one animal-human race in your game, it will be the cool, feral, bestial race that fills in a niche quite nicely. If you put in more than one, it will be a bad anime on steroids.

The Anthropomorphic Plant
These just have to go. Period. Ents are the coolest thing ever. But you shouldn't be able to play one. No, not even a little human-sized one. What did you say? Yours are made of leaves and twigs, not solid wood? I don't care. Call them what you will, twig people are always lame and not at all inspired by the actual lifecycle of plants. Does your entire race go dormant in the winter? Do you make fruit? Do you bloom? Could you become pregnant from pollen wafting through the air? No? Then you aren't really a plant, are you? You're a person in plant cosplay. Boring.

The Lycanthrope Wanna-be
Werewolves, man. Werewolves. I still can't decide whether they are better than vampires, or vise-verse. Either way, they are awesome. You know what's not awesome? Stupid werewolf wanna-be's. These include two kinds of things: first, monsters that also have some kind of "change into an animal at the full moon" kinda thing. You know, were-boars, were-bears, were-slugs, etc. Lame. It was cool once. You suddenly let every animal under the sun have some special disease that will turn humans into them once a month, and now you've gone and ruined it. Second is the half-were-people. Those human people who can turn fuzzy at the first sign of trouble and get some kinda power boost because of it. Most often called "shifters" or, heaven preserve us, "Animorphes." These are everything lame about half-orcs and half-elves, mixed with everything lame about the anthropomorphic animals. Not good.

The Tiny Race
Okay, what is going through peoples' minds when they decide to put pixies and fairies and chipmunks and whatnot into their games? The only cool thing about these races is that they are small. But most games already have a race much smaller than human, namely halflings, and that is their domain! What will the halflings have now? Hairy feet? Obsession with food? Come on. Three foot tall adventurers is already stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits here. No need to bring in an insect sized thing to help me fight the dragon, thank you.

How exactly is a person made entirely of fire a suitable adventurer? If you can survive getting wet, or losing oxygen, then what about you is fire? Oh, I'm just a dwarf with a beard made of fire. Really? That is the basis for an entirely different race and culture? Flaming beards? You know what would be way more interesting? Regular dwarves who set their real beards on fire for some reason. I'd play to see that.

Perhaps the single worst idea for a playable race ever made. This race's role and identity is that they have none. It's like opposite day in the roleplaying world. When it's a super-assassin, made by an evil wizard to kill the PCs, and can look like anyone at anytime. THAT'S Terminator 2 levels of awesome and scary. When it's a player character trying to make a buck in a dungeon crawl, that's lame and might as well be a human who likes to wear disguises. Aliases are cool, not having an identity is not.

The half-giant
I refuse to accept that these creatures could ever exist. Also, being smaller than humans makes for an interesting underdog story. Being much larger is either a TREMENDOUS advantage, or you have nerfed it's mechanical advantage so badly that it isn't even worth it anymore. Just leave these out, please. Being gigantic is the realm of monsters. Keep it that way.

The Three-armed Thing
Ugh. [Insert rules for multi-weapon fighting style BS here.]

To be honest, I love the idea of a robot-type race. (Note: ROBOT, not half-human cyborg thing. That should not be a race.) Not only do I like it, but I have never found a game world with more than one of these robot races in it. So kudos there. BUT, how about we shy away from the "built for war, now the war's over" thing, yeah? There must be cooler origin stories out there for sentient robots. First thought, screw angels, the gods left these robots behind on earth to do their will. Or maybe there isn't a spirit world, but a clockwork realm that people go when they die, and these robots are those that have managed to come back, like ghosts. You get the picture. Just get those mental gears turning and you'll figure something out.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How to Make D&D Combat More Fun

Many a person has put their two cents in on this subject. Some of those pennies have been good, some are one-trick-pennies (see what I did there?)

For example: "Have another monster/group enter the fray halfway through the battle!"

That's good once. Exactly once. Do it a second time, and your players will never again assume that the monsters they see when initiative is rolled (if you use initiative, see below) are all there is to the fight. Just like how if the DM makes use of explosive runes during session one, no PC will ever read any writing during that campaign ever again. Not that I'm bitter, or anything...

So without further to do, here are my tips for making D&D (etc. etc.) combat more fun.

  1. Get rid of Opportunity Attacks. There are many reasons for doing this. But the most important is that OAs penalize PCs for moving. Moving makes combat interesting. OAs = no movement = boring combat. You learned to put difficult and fancy terrain in your combats from some other list? Great! Now watch the PCs not use it at all for fear of getting hit with a sword on the way there...
  2. Make initiative better. Look, in-line initiative is the easiest way to arbitrate combat for beginners, but after a few years of experience, it becomes a hinderance. When everyone knows they are free for 5 minutes or more after their turn is done, people start leaving the table for beer and chips and phone calls and Starcraft II, etc. Don't let that happen. Your initiative system (or your ability to narrate and move combat without initiative at all) needs to keep everyone glued to their seats. I think popcorn initiative may be the best middle ground. If you reeeeeaaaaally love in-line initiative, allow combatants to knock other people down the order with stunning effects, etc. Keep the order dynamic.
  3. A miss should only be "plain ol' miss" about a third of the time. There is a whole world between fumbles and hits that few DMs and players every explore. I have my own fumble rules, but when it comes to interpreting a miss, I like to fly by the seat of my pants. For example, your longsword-wielding paladin player has just rolled a 2 against his dark knight nemesis. Are you just gonna let this be another miss? No! What if that dark knight caught the paly's sword blade between his armor and shield? Cool. And a free pseudo-grapple by the opponent isn't so harsh as to be fumble territory. Just let PCs do this to enemies too.
  4. Escape plans. Any moderately intelligent enemy should have one. If they are hurt or outnumbered, they flee. And this is a win-win, because either they can become a reoccurring villain if they get away, or it starts a chase (which your combat should have more of too).
  5. Don't roll that initiative die just yet. In games with an initiative system, there is this strange moment where non-combat becomes combat. The DM says "roll initiative" and...

It is impossible to roll initiative and then try and think of a way to succeed in the current situation without combat. The fighter will instantly go into attack mode. There is, of course, a lot to be said for being a good player and having a good DM. But I swear those two words create a pavlovian response and the itch for violence, even when it is not the most fun thing the PCs could do. So instead, wait to roll until a real combat situation has dawned. If the PCs are up on a ledge above a basilisk, even if the basilisk sees them, let them act outside of any initiative order until someone gets into a melee with the thing.

6. Destroy the environment. A lot of people will tell you to describe, in gross detail, every attack and wound during combat. However, there is an issue here, and that is abstract Hit Points. Unless you use one of those god-awful wound/blood/fatigue/guts/vitality/blah systems, not every hit means drawing blood, and saying a PC got stabbed in the kidney when they aren't even below half HP yet gets confusing. The other problem is that no matter how many organs pop out of someone, it doesn't make combat more interesting. No one is going to pick up a liver and try beating their opponent to death with it. BUT, furniture and such is easy to break. Everyone knows the parts of a chair, table, chest, etc. If you break those things, PCs will immediately recognize that new, makeshift weapons and tools are available to them in the fight. Also, if your large monsters are not pile-driving your PCs into furniture on the regular, I don't know what you are doing with your life...

7. Meanwhile, back at the ranch. At the end of every round, however you define that in combat, change the stakes. If it is a castle defense combat, have a hail of arrows, or a catapulted boulder, or a battering ram, or a bunch of ladders suddenly become relevant. If you are just in a dungeon with a single monster, have spells light the fungi on fire, have bats fly through the area because of the noise, have the monster's stomping cause loose rock or dirt to fall from the ceiling. Give every round its own little special event so the pace stays engaging.

8. Let the smaller/sneakier enemies hide mid-fight. This is a good escape plan, but also a great way to change the tempo of the fight. A cluttered or multi-walled area lends itself to suddenly disappearing and then stabbing people in the back.

9. Weather, baby. A downpour goes a loooooong way to setting the mood and making cool description easier. Also, wind, snow, hail, sleet, lightning, debris flying through the air. Stop having so many temperate, sunny encounters. In a dungeon? Well, the ground absorbs water, you could potentially have a wet season in a dungeon. Volcanic shafts could break through in certain places. And when all else seems too contrived, magic is the answer for why there is SO MUCH DAMN SNOW IN THIS UNDERGROUND CAVERN!

0. Combat is a drug. And the more you have of it in your game, the less it will impact the players. I recently played in a game where the first session consisted of saving a town from an invasion of kobolds under the leadership of a blue dragon. We had no less than six encounters with kobolds back-to-back-to-back, which I'm sure made sense to the DM, since it was a large town being invaded by an army of kobolds. But I can tell you that I, and essentially every player at the table, was bored by the end of encounter #2. I would have given anything to go help some people escape burning buildings instead. (In fact, I did. I had my character literally jump through a window and into a burning building to help a family, entirely skipping the group of kobolds outside that we were supposed to fight first). Two rules of thumb here. First, build up to your combats, like how the drums build up to the Mines of Moria encounter in LotR. Second, make it big, hectic, and deadly.

A quick aside on deadliness. Pitting a group of level 1 PCs against an ancient red dragon is not deadly, it's a joke. BUT! Pitting them against a group of orcs twice their number in the middle of a gladiatorial arena that has tigers and lions chained to posts at various locations is do-able. The PCs will need brains and brawn and luck, but if it required anything less, it wouldn't be worth including in your fantasy D&D game. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Expanding Attacks

So, not long ago, I posted about how we don't need attack rolls.

And it's still true. We don't need attack rolls to play D&D, or any other version of a tabletop RPG. Attack rolls often just slow down the inevitable. The number of sides on that d20 often lead to many misses that are not due to the enemy's skill or evasiveness, but due to plain crappy luck.

Take that luck partially out by rolling only damage, and you have a combat scenario where at least something happens every turn. Maybe just a scratch, but at least a character getting scratched by a near miss is WAY more interesting than a character getting plain ol' missed.

However, you can also play with attack rolls, and still have great combat. The difference comes from how you conceptualize and abstract what an "attack roll" means in your game, and what you encourage and expect from your players during a fight.

For my money, having a high bonus to attacking should translate into a high bonus for grappling, tripping, punching, kicking, disarming, bull rushing, and so on and so forth. The players are adventurers, after all. They are not walking into that dungeon with a bow and arrow, and knowing that if they lose it they are useless. (Or at least, they shouldn't be, and if your system makes it so they are useless without their weapon of choice, your system sucks. Sorry, but it's true.)

So first things first, you've got to get rid of all this combat maneuver/ grapple check/ special attack action nonsense. Combat is combat, whether you have a sword in your hand, or a banana. If your character has the cojones (or whatever the female equivalent should be, which unfortunately seems not to exist) to call him- or herself an adventurer, then they better be able to handle themselves in a fight. Streetfight, magic-fight, sword-fight, tentacle-monster fight, whatever. No need to micromanage your character's specific ability is in every facet of battle.

Now don't get me wrong, if you want your character to have a bonus to a particular fighting style, that is super awesome. But outside of that, isn't it just easier if we assume that a fighter is equally good at all kids of fighting until they become really good at one or two they prefer? Why bother making all these calculations about particular choices in combat? Just use the same bonus for everything! Make everything a regular attack roll.

Mounted archery roll? Ha! I scoff at thee!
You want to hit your opponent with your sword? Make an attack roll.
You want to tackle your opponent to the ground? Make an attack roll.
You want to grab your opponent and fling them over the castle wall? Attack roll, baby!
You want to shoot your arrow into an opponent's knee and knock them prone? Aaaaaaattack roll!
You want to feint one way and cause one of the enemies currently flanking you to accidentally hit the other guy current flanking you? That's an easy one, just roll me an attack roll!

And here is the great thing: not only can all of these rolls just be regular attack rolls, but all of these rolls can also be rolled against regular ol' Armor Class.

Consider: that base of 10 that every character gets for an AC in most d20 games, what is it? I'll tell you: it is the assumed ability of any combatant to avoid bodily harm during a fight. Everybody gets it. A straight 45% boost in your ability to not get stabbed. Then, most games also add some kind of evasive bonus from a high Dexterity. That is rather self-explanatory. Only once both of those things are said and done is armor factored in. Armor isn't even that big a part of your Armor Class. Most of your AC is simply your finely tuned sense of when to get the hell out of the way.

So yeah, the guy in plate armor is more likely to avoid a bullrush than a guy in leather armor. Does that make perfect sense? No. But is it totally baseless when it comes to the assumptions of your game? Absolutely not! It's harder to knock someone in armor down, because they are heavier and not as easily unbalanced with pressure to their soft parts and such. Armored opponents are not as easy to disarm, since their hands are frequently protected with something. Armored opponents are harder to grab and fling because armor doesn't bunch up nicely in your hand and give you good leverage over someone like a regular shirt does.

I mean, whatever logic I throw out there, someone will be able to find counter-logic that makes this system of doing things seem unreasonable. But hey, at least my unreasonable system makes combat go fast, and isn't as hard to learn.

Good luck doing that in a more complex system...
And as a last note: for the final example I gave above about feinting and causing friendly fire on two flanking enemies, I would rule that as such: the bad-ass bravo PC who wants to try such a technique would make an attack roll that must meet or exceed the Armor Class of both the combatants he is involving in the attempt. This may change nothing about his chances to succeed, or it may significantly reduce them, but seeing as he is involving two opponents in his little escapade instead of the usual one, I think that is more than fair.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What "Say Yes" Really Means, Part 2

If you haven't caught up with part 1, please do.

So, we were talking about Saying Yes, and then after hundreds of words, we got to an example where I said a human fighter and dwarven cleric ought to be able to jump a chasm without a check, even though the elven wizard spent a fly spell to cross it while carrying the halfling rogue.

The catch was that the DM told the burlier, armored player characters they could jump the chasm if they ditched their backpacks and weapons, where normally, a DM playing D&D 5 or the equivalent might just ask for a skill/ability check.

And the question I left you with was, "Why?"

Why not use that rule that the game has put there specifically for this case instead of making up some gamble you want the players to take instead?

The answer is complicated, but I will try and express it as best I can.

Essentially, your players should NOT be lame. They should be the stars of the story, and the stars of the story don't just miss a jump and die for no reason.

When the fellowship was fleeing the Mines of Moria, they weren't constantly falling off the very thin and precariously angled stairs, even though they totally should have been in real life. Why?

The reason is two-fold.

Firstly, the Lord of the Rings is a story, and stories are different from real life in a few very important ways, not least of which is that if slips, falls, and deaths are not built up to and satisfying on a narrative level, then they are cheap and lame and shouldn't happen.

Aragorn falls off of a cliff while tied to a warg because it builds up narratively to a sweet comeback moment at Helms Deep. And the plot reason for his fall isn't because he misses his footing. He's dragged off the edge by a leather buckle caught on his bracer. Nothing he could do about it.

Secondly, adventurers are awesome. Not immortal, or invincible, or the most powerful beings in the world, but they are awesome. Gandalf is awesome, that's why the only plot reason that would work for his falling into Khazad-dum is that the Balrog is pulling him with his fiery whip. And the narrative reason for Gandalf falling into Khazad-dum is so he can have an epic fight with a demon while hurdling toward the center of the earth and then die and come back even stronger.

They did NOT fall anywhere because they failed a regular ol' jump check at some random moment during the game when the d20 decided to roll a 1.

And guess what!?

That hypothetical D&D situation with the chasm and the extra weight in nearly identical to Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. He had a grip on the ledge, and the rest of the fellowship was there. They might have been able to pull him up to safety, but if they had tried to, they may very well have been turned into pin-cushions by goblin arrows. That would have been exactly what the DM told them at the table.

DM: You can leave him, or you can try to save him, but if you do, each of you is very likely to be targeted by at least two goblin archers a piece.
Frodo's player: "We have to save him! I go grab him and help pull him up!"
Aragorn's player: "I stop him from moving forward. We'll never survive that many shots."
Gandalf's player: "Fly! You fools!"
Legolas's player: "Yup, that decides it. We're outta here."
Frodo's player: "I resist! Opposed strength checks."
DM: Nope.* Aragorn is much stronger than you and he's already got a hold. You're going with him whether you like it or not.
DM: Woh, dude, chill out.

*See there? That's another place where the dice would have gotten in the way. If the DM allows a halfling to try and escape from his strong human companion who's already grabbed him to pull him to safety, then all you are gonna have is inter-party conflict. And then one character is biting another character's nose off, and it is just a mess.

I guess if you are looking for a hard and fast rule concerning say yes, to make things more concrete, here it is:

Say "Yes" or "Yes, but..." as much as possible outside of battles. That is the part of the game where it is easiest to create excitement and drama with simple give and take/cause and effect. "I want to do this." "Okay, it will cost you this." "What if I did this." "Okay, it will only cost you this, but this might happen too."

When you get to a battle, there is an assumption that neither the DM nor the players are not in total narrative control. You can't adjudicate combat with a give and take method like you can exploration, because the goal of combat is to leave with as close to what you came in with as possible. Yes, there may be treasure at the end of combat, but the combat is not necessitated by the search for the treasure (unless it is dragon skin or nightmare ashes or something like that literally ATTACHED the thing you have to fight). At the end of a combat, someone is going to lose a lot, and the great thing about having rolls decide who loses and who wins is that it keeps the story interesting, for both the DM and the players.*

*Quick note: this requires that your combats be meaningfully setup in the story. If you just throw some monsters in for no reason but to be in the way, then whatever fair and randomized result the dice give you, no matter how heart-breaking or mind-blowing, is not going to be narratively interesting or earned.

So I say roll all the dice you like for combat. In that instance, they are like salt: mostly about taste, though way too many will definitely kill you. Outside of combat, try not to roll any unless you, as a DM, can honestly say, "I don't know how I would narrate this fairly or appropriately without some randomized result." Then sure, roll a die or two. But no more.

God I hate this...
What I think this implies for game design is this: skills/specialties/whatever you call them are actually worthless mechanics from a roleplaying perspective. If you give certain characters "skill" in something, it sends an immediate message to the players who don't play that kind of character that they cannot succeed at that particular thing unless they have that mechanical bonus.

If you think your character should be aided by their level of experience in a particular area, then make it known that your character is experienced in that area. Your DM should just allow you to do more things related to that experience without any issue. You were a renowned blacksmith back in your home city? Then you can smith a sword, no check necessary.

Ahh, so you want to smith a special kind of blade that you've never made before? Roll me intelligence! Let's see if you become even more renowned over night...