Saturday, January 30, 2016

How to Handle Traps in D&D

I hate they way traps are presented in the D&D I've played. Because they advertise this:

But that is never what it feels like. That elf rogue's player literally spent two seconds on each of his last two turns.

Turn 1: "I search for a control panel" *rolls a nat 20, clearly*... DM: "Wow. Okay. You find one in the wall behind one of the face plates."
Turn 2: "I disable the device" *rolls something we don't know yet based on the picture*

There is no drama here! The only thing that is going on here is dozens and dozens of dice rolls until enough high or low rolls are made, and then the DM either tells the players "You shut of the trap/escape" or "You die".

It's almost laughable how much this picture overcompensates for the lack of tangible drama the D&D trap mechanics actually cause. Look at all the bull$hit going on in that picture! I don't care what system you are running, that situation is unplayable.

So if that is how you do traps wrong, how do you do them right?

Traps are not a game of dice. Traps are a game of information. Adventurers survive when they have enough information, and then process that information correctly. For my money, information should never be rolled for, it should be role-played for. What information do the players get? Well, that depends on what kind of trap we're talking about.

Big Trap?
Small Trap?

A big trap involves a major change in circumstances: falling into a deep pit, being run-down by a huge boulder, getting caught in a room that is filling with water, etc. Interacting with these traps and their aftermath could last as long as a combat encounter.

A small trap generally involves deterring a character from interacting with something: an explosive runes spellbook trap, a flame-jet trapped treasure chest, a poison covered doorknob, etc. These traps are short and sweet, and should be avoidable in mere minutes, if the party has the resources to do so. A poison doorknob can be avoided with a spare rag. A trapped spellbook may require traveling back to the city to get the assistance of a high-level magic-user.

Now, let's get something out of the way right here: there is no real reason why traps should be detectable. Just like there is no real reason why that level 1 dungeon shouldn't have twelve cave trolls in it, instead of one.

But this wonderful hobby of ours is about letting players risk their characters for highly rewarding (and uncertain) outcomes. If a situation clearly spells doom for the party, then it shouldn't be sprung on your players. Sure, they could always goad the ancient dragon, and then all get eaten as their just desserts. But at least they knew what they were getting into. Opening a door and being thrust into an encounter that is impossible to win, or a deadly trap that is impossible to avoid, isn't fun or engaging for the players, it's pointless.

So when it comes to traps, sure, you could make it undetectable except on a DC 48 search check, regardless of whether someone says "I scan the chest for signs of traps." But if you did, you'd be a dick.

Really no two ways around it.

You need to make sure that every trap you put into your game has at least a few warning signs that become apparent upon a players saying "I check the [insert whatever here] for traps/anything weird," or even just saying they do something that would get them close enough to notice.

Example: the flame-jet trap on a treasure chest.

This trap could be mechanical, or magical. If it was mechanically constructed, you could say that there is a VERY thin, almost invisible wire that runs from the latch at the front, across the top of the chest, and into the space at the back next to the hinges. Upon a player saying they inspect the chest, you tell them about the wire, and how it is under a lot of tension.

If it's magical, perhaps there is a rune inscribed on the side of the chest so that half of it is on the upper part of the chest, and half is on the lower part. It makes one symbol when the chest is closed, but opening it will split the symbol in two.

And that's it.

You don't say "This looks like a flame-jet trap." You don't say "Something is probably going to shoot out of the chest when it's opened." You just describe the warning signs. Then, the party needs to figure out what they are going to do. Cut the wire? Open the chest with the fighter's greatsword? Cast antimagic field and then open it normally? Pick the chest up and throw it across the room? Bring the closed chest back to town and figure it out later?

And the best part is that all of this can be role-played. There is no roll that will make or break your party's strategy or chances of survival.

Another example: a room that locks itself and fills with water upon a character turning a knob attached to a false door in the wall.

What are the warning signs here? Well, the water has to come in somehow. Sure, they could be totally hidden before the knob is turned, but what fun is that? Have some metal slits at the top of the walls that circle the whole room. Have them be slightly wet upon inspection. And the water has to drain somehow after the trap is sprung, otherwise this is a one-use room. The drains would need to seal off, but you could have some puddles on the floor. Where did those come from, I wonder?

And that false door should obviously be false upon inspection, but that's it. They get nothing else from looking at it. If the rogue says "I check the door for traps," I reply "The door appears to be fake. You suspect there is just more wall behind it," done. There is no way that by simply inspecting the knob a person could deduce the water trap. But once they know the door is fake, but the knob seems real, and if they think about the puddles and the damp wall slits, then a picture starts to come together.

Once water starts filling the room and the doors magically seal, the players focus should now be on how the trap shuts off. Plugging the slits in the walls is probably not going to work, unless the wizard has some powerful spell they are willing to spend.

Maybe there is a small sapphire on the ceiling that hangs down a few inches, and when the water touches the sapphire, the traps shuts off and drains opens up in the floor? Now, a player frantically looking over the room as it floods can put two-and-two together and try to splash water onto the gem to preemptively shut the water off.

And if they don't figure that out, someone needs to think of a way to trap some air inside the room to breath for a bit after it fills up. Again, the water has to drain at some point, hence only puddles being left when they walked in.

Be sure to preset the rate at which the water fills the room, so that there really is an objective time-limit to the PC's attempts. That keeps you, the DM, honest, and allows you to answer accurately when the party asks how deep the water is each round.

So to quickly summarize:

1. WARNING SIGNS WARNING SIGNS WARNING SIGNS!! One at least, more for more dangerous and intensive traps.

2. Give out the warning signs freely. If they waltz right by, then they miss it and get the short end of the stick. But if they tread carefully, the information should fall in their laps.

3. Role-play it. Anyone can try to plug a hole, or smash a chest, or cut a wire so long as they have the tools to do so.

Friday, January 29, 2016

You Should Watch Critical Role

"Fanart: Critical role party" by mataujall, on deviant art

This quick post is just my little PSA about Critical Role, a show that streams live at 7PM PST (10PM EST) every Thursday on Geek & Sundry's Twitch channel. You can also watch all of the previous episodeson Geek & Sundry's website, here.

[Vex and Vax] by David Rodrigues (@3rdclover)
If you are not watching Critical Role, you are truly missing out. I know there are a lot of actual-play D&D podcasts and such that many people love. To each his own. But I cannot recommend enough that you give Critical Role, a video medium, the old college try.

The DM, Matthew Mercer, is beyond talented. The players, all voice actors as well, are charming and effortlessly in character. Their relationships as friends around the table, as well as longstanding character interactions, are a joy to watch. CR has the story beats of a well-written and well-acted TV show, but all the casual laughs and smiles of your weekly D&D game.

[Grog and Craven Edge] by Ameera (@Mikandii)
Also, the endless font of inspiring character art that the show's fans create only adds to the whole experience.

I mean, LOOK AT THIS STUFF! <<<< ^^^^^

Amazing. I love that the cast of CR sharing their improv and play is sending good creative vibes across the internet. *Fist-bump for art*

Please, do yourself a favor, and watch an episode or two. It may not be your play style, and their conversion to 5th Edition D&D may not be your system, but I have a feeling that you won't be able to resist the good ol' fashioned D&D entertainment that it brings.


P.S. Thanks to all of you who have been liking, sharing, and messaging about the blog on twitter, it's very encouraging!

Nice to be part of a dialogue around this hobby *cough*lifestyle*cough*.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

D&D Classes Without Math: Rogue

When I think of the fighter, the first word that comes to my head is "reliability." The fighter's play style, from a mechanical perspective, is about reliable class features. Multiple attacks per round, higher chance to hit, higher AC, etc. These make the fighter solid and, although less than flashy, you can count on them when the situation becomes FUBAR.

Back when rogues were thieves, they were reliable too. The party could count on them to climb walls, hide in shadows, hear things, etc. Backstabbing almost seemed to be an afterthought. But as the class progressed, things changed. The thief become an agent of luck and disorder. The thief was meant to thrive in a chaotic environment, which they often helped make ever more unpredictable. This transformation seemed to be completed by 3rd Edition D&D, when it became the "rogue" and was now focused less on some special set of technical skills and more on the ability to slip from danger and create danger at the blink of an eye.

Personally, I prefer the scoundrel rogue to the simple thief. Not only does the idea of a rogue easy subsume the thief concept, if desired, but it also helps avoid the horrible abomination that is Bad Trap Syndrome, since the thief has ever been the "bad trap disarmer."

So on that note, here we go.

D&D Classes Without Math: The Rogue

Rogues are about big risk and bigger reward. It is hard to think of a better character for a fantasy game based around rolling dice. With that in mind, here are my core rogue features in no particular order:

1. Lady Luck's Re-roll

All rogues should have some ability to reroll a die during the day. This does a lot of ground work to establishing the kind of character a rogue is, but it also helps the player. You are much more likely to try something risky if you know you've got a lucky break in your back pocket. As a matter of taste, I would say that the player MUST take the second roll, even if it is worse. Hey, lady luck works both ways....

2. Surprisingly Dangerous

Backstab is great is theory, tough to do in practice. I'd give rogues a loosened up version where so long as the enemy is unsuspecting, the rogue does a buttload more damage. I'd also play hardball and say that once you engage an enemy, you must completely lose them to get the bonus damage again. Simply ducking behind a tree or flanking with a buddy is not enough. Skirmishing rogues are good, swashbuckling rogues are good, but I despise the "bonus damage every round for barely any work" shtick that is seen in 3E, 4E, and 5E D&D. Lazy rogues are a no-go.

3. How'd He DO That?

The quintessential rogue, getting a magic item to work.
Something that has been lost to time in D&D is a rogue's ability to fumble around with a magic thing until he either: breaks it, blows up, or makes it work. I think this is 100% pure rogue character. They are tinkerers in the most fantasy sense. As far as feature wording goes, I'd say "a rogue may attempt to use any magical item normally reserved for spell casters, such as a magic staff, wand, rod, etc., and had X in Y probability (e.g. 4 in 6 probability) to make it work on any given attempt." What is more chaotic than a sudden bolt of lightning from the rogue's direction? Not much, I would think.

4. Cover Your Rear End

Rogues are not stupid. They may be foolish, but they know how likely it is they will die if they make a serious misstep. But that being said, someone has to try and parley with the dragon, and it's probably gonna be the rogue. So, best that they know how to cover their butt. For my tastes, this is simply an option to forgo some attack bonus for extra AC, a la the Expertise feat in 3.5 D&D. Or perhaps rogues could receive an AC bonus on turns when they use their action to run. Pretty much anything that helps them get the hell out of dodge in one piece is gonna hit the sweet spot.

5. Grab Bag

Unlike the other grab bags so far in this series, this one is a literal grab-bag type class feature. Rogues are a varied group, even more so than fighters, rangers, etc. Where a fighter's unique personality comes through in his or her choice of arms and armor, and a ranger's comes through in his or her choice of animal companion, a rogue's personality should come through by selecting one feature from a list of three or four. These features might include a special secret thief language a la Thieves' Cant in 5E, it could be a "get out of jail free card" type dodge where the rogue can reduce damage they take by half from one attack a day, it could be a second reroll for the day, but only usable on charisma checks, and so on. Part of the charm and flavor of rogues is never knowing what they are hiding. This is the mystery icing on the scoundrel cake.

Monday, January 25, 2016

D&D Classes Without Math: Ranger

Thanks to Tolkien, our fantasy forests have been filled with longswords and breastplate armor for years, and it's time that stopped. The ranger is being totally screwed out of all its coolness thanks to the decision that it needs to be a fighter that likes the woods. No more I say! If you want the ranger to be good (read: fun and interesting), then let it be its own thing.

That means not being a KILLER, because that is what a fighter is. A ranger is a SURVIVOR. That involves killing, of course. And running away, too. And keeping friends who have your back. It means knowing your environment and gathering knowledge before you act. In war, being brash might make you a hero, but in the wilds, it just gets you killed.

D&D Classes Without Math: The Ranger

Here are my core features (without math) for the ranger class, in no particular order:

1. A ranger is best equipped with leather armor, a bow, and some knives.

Lugging a 5 pound longsword through the woods is both exhausting and stupid. Bringing a matching shortsword along with it is downright lunacy. The ranger has two modes of battle: safely from afar, or up close and personal. Ideally, a few arrows in an unsuspecting target ends things before they begin. However, if a wild animal or monster gets the jump on you, your best bet is always a knife: easy to carry, easy to conceal, easy to draw, and easy to use. Not to mention it has about 1 billion different uses when surviving in the bush. I could hear an argument for a light axe, but again, it's a matter of weight vs. utility. Of course, I would never tell my player "You can't wield that" but giving the ranger a nice bonus to bow and knife attacks certainly implies "Why aren't you wielding that?"

2. An animal companion is a must.

This is perhaps the worst aspect of the 5e ranger. The fact that animal companions are so downplayed as to be near useless is super disappointing to me. A ranger's companion is the best tool in their arsenal, and also the thing that keeps them sane. It is impossible to have any serious human relationships in the wild....alone....all the time. Your animal is your best friend. I don't care what you have to cut, feature-wise, from your ranger class. Just get a good animal companion in there. Let it act freely as a pseudo-second character that goes when the ranger does. There is just about nothing more unique to any D&D class than a ranger and its companion. (P.S. I'm very much against druid animal companions, for various reasons, not the least of which is that they can already shapeshift into nearly any animal they want.)


Traps, man. They have been disabled for years by characters, but never set by them. Why? Rangers need certain kinds of traps (mostly snares) to eat. As the wardens of the woods, they would clearly also know how to set traps for larger (read: humanoid) trespassers. Digging a big pit trap might be a bit much, but I think a ranger should be able to make a rudimentary branch-spear trap given an hour in a suitable natural environment. And noise traps! Noise traps would be huge for any ranger leading a group through an area where they will have to make camp and sleep. If you don't know, a noise trap is something like a bag full of empty tin cans falling from a tree when someone trips a trap wire. It isn't meant to harm anything, just make a bunch of noise. The noise will alert you as to the creature's presence, and also its direction and relative distance. Traps allow the ranger to be creative during downtime. Always a plus. Rangers should also be able to spot such wilderness traps, if they are careful.

4. Bush medicine.

Rangers get nasty wounds out in the wild and there is no one around to help them. If they didn't sew it up and clean it themselves, they would surely die of blood-loss, infection, or both. Just so, rangers should be one of the most, if not the most capable healers in the party. This can be as simple as being able to stabilize a dying creature without needing to make a check. It could be a scaling ability that eventually includes treating poisons and diseases. You chose. Point is, a ranger that knows nothing about basic first-aid is a dead ranger (and even worse, a boring ranger).

5. The little things.

This is another grab-bag category where you might want to fill stuff in. Tracking, for instance. If you don't let non-rangers make tracking checks, then rangers are automatically that much cooler and more useful. Maybe rangers should be immune to surprise? Those wild instincts are one reason why he/she is still alive, after all. Camouflage and hiding abilities could also be useful, though I think just being silent is more the ranger style. The great outdoors provides plenty of easy cover and hiding spots. Hiding in an open area that is being observed and such is a thief/rogue tactic, if anything.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

D&D Classes Without Math: Fighter

I enjoy 5th Edition D&D. And I am overjoyed that Wizards has put out an SRD and the Dungeon Master's Guild for members of the community to add their creativity to the hobby and share it with everyone.

However, I find myself unsatisfied with several of the classes as they are presented in the PHB. At first I thought my grievances were unique to each class and unrelated. But as I continued to think about it and play the game, I found my disappointment grew out of one central idea: the classes I don't like are the ones which have lost their core meaning.

So, that gave me the idea for a series here on the blog, which I am calling "D&D Classes without Math," because I don't intend to deal with numbers and such, so that you can apply this to any tabletop RPG you would like. Also, I plan to cover every class I can, not just the lack-luster 5e ones.

Ultimately, the goal is to put into words what each class from our beloved game really is, down to brass tacks. Clearly, a +1 damage bonus doesn't define a character. There is something implied by the term "fighter" or "rogue" or "wizard" that, in my opinion, must be reached through the class's mechanics to make a successful and fulfilling piece of the game. (Much work is done by the players and how they chose to role play their character, of course, but I am still a staunch believer in the theory that mechanics inform player behavior, even in areas where the mechanics are silent.)

So, without further delay, here is the first installment.

D&D Classes Without Math: The Fighter

Source Link
A fighter knows how to fight. They know how to go all-out, or hold back in a defensive stance. They know how to identify an enemy's style and react to it. They know how to exert themselves for a last push to victory. They know how to tangle with multiple opponents at once, if necessary.

Most of all, they know the tools of their trade. They know that you can attack with every inch of a greatsword. They know you can grapple with a quarterstaff. They know carrying a shield increases their chance of surviving a battle in open fields, and decreases their odds of surviving a skirmish in the woods.

How does each fighter know all this? Beats me. Years of training? Killer instinct? Blessed by the god of war? Doesn't matter.

All that matters is that the fighter is the combatant extraordinaire.

Aside: what does that mean for the barbarian, ranger, paladin, etc? Should they just be worse at fighting? Simple answer: yes. Complex answer: their primary job should not be fighting, because if it is, then they are fighters. You want to make a 5e-style barbarian? Make a fighter that wears animal furs and fights with utter abandon. Not every minor stylistic choice deserves a new class. Only new roles in the game deserve new classes. This is more flexible than it sounds, but also much more rigid than late editions of D&D have been. You'll see as this post series develops.

Anyway, back to the fighter. How do we pack all of that awesome combat-know-how into a class, and scale it a bit with level so that fighters aren't done with all their training by first session? What class features embody the soul of the fighter? In my opinion, they are (in no particular order):

1. Fighters should have multiple attacks per turn, though not necessarily from the get-go.

This is not to represent the many, many weapon swings the fighter makes each round of combat. This is so that a fighter can attempt to hit multiple targets each round, thus making him/her one of the few (if not only) character-types that isn't quickly overwhelmed by throwing down with a few foes at once. This also easily translates into the fighter's higher damage output and accuracy. If you just want to deal a lot of damage to one enemy, attack it three times. You aren't guaranteed more damage or hits, but you certainly have a good chance of it. Last but not least, you can add a simple trade-off between using attack rolls and maintaining a solid defense. Something like "for each attack a fighter does not expend in a round, they get +1 to Armor Class" or maybe "they can roll to parry one attack." Or, you could just include a simple attack bonus-AC trade off choice that the fighter can make once per round.

2. Fighters should be able to exert themselves to do more on their combat turn.

A la the 5e action surge, giving the fighter a bonus something to do in combat is a good idea, but I would focus it more. I would say "the fighter can (x number of times per unit time, you decide) get an additional attack on their turn, even if they have not made any other attacks that turn." So, the fighter could choose to attack on his turn, and then get an extra attack on top of the previous ones. Or, the fighter could use their turn to do something other than attack, but still get in a quick swipe at an enemy while they do so.

3. Fighters should get a small bonus to hit against creatures they have defeated before.

Pretty self-explanatory. Fighter's owe their survival to remembering how to win fights. If they don't improve from each bout with a creature, they aren't long for this world. This wouldn't be cumulative, of course. So killing three goblins over three days does not grant +3 vs. goblins. It would be +0 agains the first, and then +1 against the goblins on days 2 and 3 (as well as all subsequent goblins). It's the DM's job to decide how broad or specific each bonus is. Is any goblin good for "+1 vs. goblins" or would it be "+1 vs. goblin stabbers" and then "+1 vs. goblin slingers," etc....

4. Fighters should be able to accomplish feats of strength.

All fighters are athletes, though some may be more akin to dancers and others to football players. They are all powerful, in that they can focus their bodily strength to accomplish physical tasks with great success. This should be represented with well-rounded Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores, of course, but throwing in a class feature for fun is a good idea, in my opinion. Simply put, this feature would be "(x number of times per unit time) the fighter can attempt a feat of strength, significantly increasing their chance of succeeding on a strength-based test." This could be done in a number of ways. It could be a large bonus or advantage, but one that must be applied before the roll. Or, it could be a moderate advantage, but one that can be applied retro-actively, therefore doubling as a fail-safe. I love the image of a burly or physical character busting down a door or lifting a portcullis because they are desperate and the party is in dire-straights. It gives the fighter some unskilled, but non-combat niche to fill.

5. The basics: fighters should have higher HP, and access to all weapons, armors, shields, etc.

Again, self-explanatory. I only include it as a footnote, really. This allows fighters to confidently wade into battle, and look forward to many, many usable goodies after the fact. This also represents where you might have stuff in your system that you think fighters should also get. Bonuses to hit. Bonus to initiative, perhaps? You get the idea.