Archive for May, 2012

40 Kobolds

It probably won’t surprise many people that Room 6 of the Caves of Chaos in the 5e playtest materials has set some hair on end. By the book description, room 6 can have up to 40 kobolds in it. Needless to say, this has offended the sensibilities of people who believe all encounters in roll playing games should be “balanced”. What hope does a group of 5 PCs have against a horde of 40 kobolds (incidentally, the original module also had 40 kobolds in this room, 17 male, 23 female). The answer of course is: “Without very careful planning and consideration, very little.” Which is as it should be.

It seems to me that when people these days talk about “balanced” encounters, what they really mean is “weighted in such a way that the PCs have a roughly 60-75% chance of being successful, unless it’s a BBEG battle, in which case it’s more acceptable for the chances of success to be between 50-60%, and under no circumstances should it ever dip below 50% unless there is a story reason for the PCs to be defeated.” That’s not a balanced encounter. That’s a rigged encounter in favor of the PCs. If we want to talk about a balanced encounter, we would be talking about encounters where 50% of the time, the PC’s will lose. Honestly, that’s not all that fun in a game where combat is expected (if not outright encouraged), so even in the deadliest forms of early D&D, encounters were weighted such that in most of them, the PCs had a > 50% chance of wining if they weren’t actively self destructive. But older editions believed in a larger balance, one across the entire world, or dungeon, wherein while the PCs might for the sake of game have the upper hand most of the time in the right sections, sometimes you came across encounters you just couldn’t win at your level, or with your skills. Sometimes you retreat and try again. There’s nothing wrong with this.

And if the PCs decide to rush headlong into the room of 40 kobolds without preparation. Well, then honestly, they deserve everything that’s coming to them.


Now there is one problem with the 40 kobold room as it relates to the current designs of D&D games. You only get experience for killing or otherwise defeating monsters. In old D&D, the bulk of your XP came from treasure, which honestly I think they should bring back.


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On the Importance of Being Specific

One thing that raised some hackles in the 5e playtest materials was a description of searching checks. In the materials, they described a key hidden under some clothes in a dresser. They then stated that a player who said they search around the room, looking at the furniture and objects in the room for clues, would not find the key (or would not have a chance, so no roll should be made). By comparison they stated that a player who said they search the dresser and drawers would find (or have a chance to find) the key. This predictably lead to much gnashing of teeth over “pixel bitching” and having your read your DM’s mind  to find things.

In general, DMs should never require down to the absolute minutest detail for search descriptions (i.e. someone who says they search a desk should probably be assumed to open drawers and check under the desk) but at the same time, players shouldn’t just be able to say “I search the room” and find all the secrets in the room either.

From the DM standpoint, if something could be found by saying “I search the room” then there was no point to hiding it in the first place, and you might as well have put the item in the open.

Equally, players should never want to leave what their characters do up to the DM. If you tell your DM that you “search the room” and expect to find the key under the clothes in the dresser, then you should equally have no right to complain when the DM decides that you triggered the trap in the desk during your search. Being specific is key to avoiding misunderstandings.

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Is it Time to Drop the Fighter?

Over at Micah’s place, I left a comment regarding his thoughts on how D&D Next is handling the fighter so far. And I liked what I wrote so much, I’ve decided to copy it here as well. I might be serious about this too. I’ll have to think on it a bit more.

I think without going to an every class looks and behaves exactly the same as every other class like 4e had, the fighter will always and forever be getting the short end of the stick as long as they keep power scaling the game. The problem is the Fighter is the “core class” that everything is built off of, and the more extra classes and features and powers they add, the further and further behind the fighter falls.

Think of 0e, where as you mention, there was no thief class. You had fighter, wizard and cleric. The fighter does the physical stuff, the wizard does the ranged siege and the cleric did defense / healing. Then they added the thief, and suddenly the fighter does the physical stuff, except the things the thief does. The the barbarian came a long and now he does the hitting things and doing lots of damage thing really well. Then the rogue, who’s claim to fame is dextrous fighting with light weapons. Then the ranger, who takes ranged weapons. Then the monk took unarmed combat. So now we have a fighter who’s no longer the climber, no longer the heavy damage dealer, not a defender, not a ranged weapons guy, not a nimble swashbuckler, and so on and so forth. So now what is the fighter other than a better than the average bear, man at arms?

I didn’t like what 4e did with powers, I think it changed the feel of everything too much, and made all the classes feel pretty much the same, and while it may be a nice system, it didn’t feel like D&D and didn’t have good support for the type of old adventures that define D&D. But clearly I think, going back to the 3e way where you just pile feats and skills onto the fighter isn’t what people want either (just go read through some 4e fan reactions to this playtest, if you can stomach the wailing that is).

Perhaps then the solution is to drop the fighter class entirely. Because lets face it, what the complaints about the fighter being mundane boil down to is that he doesn’t have any cool special things that make all the other classes unique, and how could he, the fighter by definition in the old editions was a catch all for anything that wasn’t a magic user or a holy man, a jack of all trades. But at this point, the fighter catches nothing but flak. So let’s ditch the fighter completely. You want to hit things hard and fast, play a barbarian. You want to buckle some swash, play a rogue. You want to live out your Legolas fan fics, play a ranger. You want to kick butt Jet Li style, hello monk.

Other than being iconic, what does the fighter bring to the table anymore?


D&D Next Public Playtest: First Thoughts

So the D&D Next (5e, Type V whatever you want to call it) play test is out. Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. I made it a point to avoid any commentary on the playtest before I had a chance to download and review the material myself, and I have to say I’m glad I did. There’s a interesting split in the commentary, where almost all the fans of 3.5 or earlier D&D range between excited to cautiously optimistic to indifferent, and the 4e fans who all appear to view this as the coming apocalypse. Although it’s somewhat telling I think that the few comments I’ve been able to find from non experienced D&D players are generally favorable.

I thought I’d get some of my initial thoughts out of the way here. The terms of the beta forbid me from excerpting any of the material, so I highly recommend that if you haven’t, you sign up and download the materials for yourself. First things first, the supplied materials are very basic. If WotC were ever to release a “rules lite” version of D&D this would probably be most of it. No character creation rules yet, nor theme, background, class or race rules. A few low level spells, information about ability scores, generating HP and some copy / paste equipment lists. The rules as presented are clearly inspired by 2e and 3.5e, with mechanics that should be familiar to any D&D player, but most familiar to players of those editions. Reading though the character sheets provide some hints of the modules to come which will presumably bring in more of the 4e feel if that’s what you want. Certainly, if you ignore the inflated HP and attacks, I can see how you could use this core set of rules to emulate just about everything from 0e to 3.5e, and that appears to be something WotC wants you to see, since the included sample adventure is the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I have not had a chance to read though the included one to see if it’s a verbatim copy , or a modified one.

On to the highlights:

Advantages / Disadvantages

This is an interesting and new mechanic to D&D. In addition to basic +/- 2 modifiers to rolls, certain conditions will grant an attacker an advantage or disadvantage. The basic idea is that depending on which you have, when you roll your attack, or check, or save, you roll two d20 and take the highest or lowest of the two rolls depending on whether you have an advantage or disadvantage respectively. For example, instead of opportunity attacks against ranged characters who attack while in melee range, the character now takes a disadvantage. Ranged characters also take a disadvantage for firing at long range. At first read, I like this idea, though I wonder how it will play out in long term play.

Disrupted Spell Casting

If a Wizard (and thus far from the play test documents, only a wizard) takes damage they become “disrupted” on their next turn. Effectively this means that the wizard must make a DC 10 Constitution save if they want to cast a spell, or the spell will fizzle, but not be lost. A nod of sorts to the 0e days when being hit while spell casting lost your spell.

Ability Scores as Saving Throws

In this playtest, ability scores (or more accurately their modifiers) dictate your saving throws, so rather than Save vs Poison or Staves or Wands a la 0e/1e, or Fort/Ref/Will saves a la 3.5e or defenses a la 4e, the playtest has essentially 6 saves, one for each stat. Save DCs are determined by the DM as in 3.5, and are d20 + ability mod +/- other factors. I personally like having multiple saving throws in the game. While I appreciate the simplicity of a single throw a la Swords and Wizardry, it leads to writing down tons of extra exceptions, that are often more easily handled with multiple throws. And since I’m sort of in the school of “Rolling Dice is Fun!” I prefer the saving throws to 4e’s defenses and 50/50 saving throw.

Move + Action = Turn

I have no preference one way or the other between move/action systems of 2e and before or the Move/Minor/Standard system of 4e, other than to say that having an explicit minor action did add some interesting spell and power effects to 4e. On the other hand, more often than not, I found myself and my fellow players skipping over the minor action, unless there was an explicit need for it as outlined in a power, so the lack of a minor action in the playtest doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The places where it would have been called out in 4e are still called out, they just imply a minor action rather than calling it that.

Standing From Prone is no Longer a Full Movement

In addition to the elimination of “Minor Actions”, the play test documents also make a change that standing from a prone position now only consumes 5 ft of movement rather than your entire movement. This to my mind is a great, if small change. I absolutely hate that getting up from prone consumes one’s entire movement in 4e. I fully buy into the idea that standing up isn’t “free” , and should cost you some of your movement. I can even buy that it should cost you more than a mere 5 ft of movement, but I have never been able to justify in my head that it would cost your entire movement. In addition, reloading a crossbow no longer consumes your movement if you want to load and fire on the same turn, it now gives you a disadvantage.


The playtest documents include a dying mechanic that is something between the 4e “three strikes” mechanic and 3.5e -10 mechanic. In the playtest rules, starting on the round after you reach 0 hp, you begin making death saving throws. Each saving throw you fail causes you to lose 1d6 additional HP. If you successfully make 3 (not necessarily consecutive) saving throws, you stabilize. Otherwise, once you reach -(CON + Level) hp you’re D-E-D dead.

EP Returns

For those of you that started with 4e, ep was a coin denomination worth 5sp or 1/2 gp. Other than it being a nice throw back to the old editions, I have no preference one way or the other about it, but I do find the wailing and gnashing of teeth over its existence to be amusing.

Armor Needs More Information

Given the relatively easy to get attribute modifiers (anything over 11 gives you at least +1), I can’t see a reason why anyone would want to choose heavy armor. In addition to costing more, the heavy armor classes reduce your speed, weigh more and at least as far as the current rules are concerned give you no benefits at all, over a a light armor with your dex mods. Of course this runs counter to my previous post on it being perfectly OK to run a character that doesn’t take the optimal path, but still, it would be nice to see some reason to choose heavy armor other than flavor, if only perhaps to appease the munchkins.

Welcome Back Flavor

Oh, how much I’ve enjoyed reading some of the spell and monster descriptions in this material. Flavor is back with a passion, including random tidbits like what sort of weapons or treasure a given monster prefers, and spells. I know this had caused some great consternation among some 4e fans who see this as extraneous and are confused as to what purpose it serves, especially since it’s not included for every monster, but honestly, I like it. One of the great things about reading early D&D material is how everything is given a bit of personality and monsters and spells are more than just their stat blocks. I do however agree with the 4e fans that spells and monsters need a standardized and simple stat block for quick in game reference which most of the monsters do, but most of the spells do not. They may not need to be included right next to the fluff (though all the information should be in the fluff part, after all fluff is rules), but perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing to include condensed stat block appendices.

All that said, I don’t like the re-introduction of PC attributes for all monsters. I get that with saves being attribute based it’s somewhat necessary, but I’ve always been OK with NPCs/Monsters being created and acting differently than PCs, and would rather have a simpler or even single save system for monsters and basic NPCs. Additionally, I would love to see a section on building or modifying your own mosters a la 4e  or Swords and Wizardry.

4e Mechanics Without 4e Vocabulary

If there is one thing that has possibly raised the hackles of 4e fans more than anything, it is the use of 4e and 4e like mechanics while dropping 4e vocabulary. Distances are once again in feet rather than squares, no more explicit “minor actions” and the new “mundane healing” which I will get to next, as opposed to “healing surges”. Well, I hate to tell 4e fans this, but 4e’s vocabulary is a large reason why people say it feels too much like a video game, and why it doesn’t feel like D&D, and whether you believe that to be a problem or not, WotC (and a certain number of ex players) certainly seem to think it is. The RPG hobby as a whole, and D&D in particular has developed a vocabulary of its own. When you say PC, NPC, Monster, Class, Race, Saving Throw IC, OOC, XP, HP, MP, AC, STR, DEX, INT, WIS, CHA, and CON, even non D&D players generally know what you’re talking about, and most successful games that attempt to emulate or be the next D&D use that common language, and where they deviate from the common language, they usually do so either for copyright purposes, or for a compelling new mechanic. After TSR and before he died, Gary Gygax went on to produce another RPG line called “Lejendary Adventures”, which though I haven’t read, I understand was actually quite good, and was a lot of what Gygax would have done with D&D had he continued with it. But for copyright, and I think for distance reasons, LA deviated significantly from the D&D vocabulary. While there are a number of reasons LA failed, many gamers found the odd vocabulary (sometimes for no reason than to be different) off putting. 4e is something of the same thing. While it is D&D and uses plenty of the D&D language, it has its own vocabulary, significantly different from any edition before it. In theory, the vocabulary shouldn’t matter, as long as the idea is being conveyed, but the language used goes a lot towards the feel of something.

Mundane Healing

5e also introduces mundane healing wich is something of a bastardized version of healing surges from 4e. In 4e, healing surges work as something of a “how long before the party needs to rest” gauge, and as free non-magical healing. In practice this means that your HP in 4e is really a measure of how much of a beating you can take in a single combat, and your healing surges are a measure of how much you can take in a day. Because healing surges in 4e are mostly used outside of battle, and when used outside of battle can be used freely, most DMs apparently use them to measure off individual encounters, and assume that the party will be at at least 3/4 HP for each new encounter. The new 5e “mundane healing” attempts to do something similar. In the playtest, your character has a number of hit dice, apparently equal to their level with a die type related to their class (d4 for wizards, d12 for fighters and so on). With “mundane healing” players outside of battle can use a “healing kit charge” to bandage or patch themselves up, rolling as many of their hit dice as they want to see how much they gain back. And unlike 4e, magical healing doesn’t use your hit dice up.

I like non magical healing, and in fact, allowing 1d3 (but no more than the amount lost in the last battle) of minor healing after a combat is one of my LL house rules. I was never a big fan of 4e’s healing surges, but I’m not so sure I like this mechanic either. Since starting HP is CON + 1HD, mundane healing especially at low levels is basically a daily use to potentially only get back 1 HP. I have a distinct feeling this will be more frustrating than not. I think I would rather either a larger number of HD available at low levels (say starting with 4 or 5) or have a guaranteed return on HD (such as the full die value). If, as they stated leading up to this play test, WotC wanted to keep the cleric from having to play as a heal bot (something I should talk about in another post), then they didn’t accomplish their goal here.

Weird HP Scalling

Speaking of HP, it appears that they’ve tried to combine some version of 4e HP generation with 0e random generation. As I mentioned before, each PC gets starting HP of CON + 1 HD which is akin to how its done in 4e, with the exception that 4e isn’t random at all. But then, unlike 4e where each level generates a predictable increase in HP, you roll another HD and add that, much like old editions. As a result, if you are a fighter with a 15 CON, at 5th level you could either have 25 HP (because minimum additional HP is your CON modifier), or 75 HP, with most fighters probably falling somewhere around 45. Personally, I like random, it makes things interesting, but with how much HP scores (and consequently damage) have inflated over the years (compare to LL where a 5th level fighter with 15 CON will have  between 10 and 45 HP with the average falling in at 25), I think there either needs to be less random, or a higher minimum floor.

Random is Back

Speaking of random, dice rolls are back with a vengeance. Once again, this appears to vex 4e fans who very much love the complete predictability of just about everything in 4e, but for fans of older editions, where consulting a random chart was common place, you will find plenty of random, from HP generation, to how many of each monster carries what weapon to how much damage you avoid while drunk. Again, vexing to 4e fans, but in my mind, rolling dice is fun.


So on the whole I find myself fairly optimistic about this new version. It feels more like D&D used to, and it looks like it might streamline a lot of the insanity that was choice and option overload in 3e and 4e while reducing the inconsistent design of earlier editions. Whether or not they can pull off something that throws a bone to everyone and is still fun to play with a D&D soul remains to be seen, but with the caveat that this is a very rough core mechanics play test, they seem to be off to an OK start. Actual play test report pending in about 2 weeks when I can sit the group down for a session.

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… is an awesome game. They’re also great from Dunkin Donuts, though I am quite disappointed that they no longer use the old box art. But neither of those is what this post is about. Rather this post is about something I hear quite a bit from some RPG players. As usual, I will dredge up some examples from the PA forums:

[In reference to DCC RPG’s alignment influencing the bonuses you get to certain skills] This does not sound like a good idea, since it quite easily leads to picking alignment based on what bonuses you want rather than what fits your character.

You’d only see single alignment groups because if someone has the choice between getting more healing or having an interesting clash of morals within the group they’re going to pick the former.

[In reference to DCC RPG’s Level 0 Funnel] A game system where I have zero choices in what character I get to play? Great. Awesome Sign me up that, it sounds like good times.

If stats are randomly rolled, as you say, based their array the character they make is going to favor one class. In my experience, this doesn’t actually leave much room for making any meaningful choices. If you roll a high Int and a low-to-middling Str, well you’re playing a wizard. Got a decent Cha and a high Dex? Rogue. You’re still left with little to no choice in this sort of system, unless you want to play a subpar cleric with the bare minimum Wis. Playing a fighter with 13 Str and being completely incapable of doing your one job because of bad stats is always a good time. Moving on…

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a pronouncement to make. Admittedly, no one has made me Lord Grand Inquisitor of All Things RPG, but I’m fairly confident that this is an important message that just needs to be said every once in a while: It is OK to play an unoptimized character. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that playing an unoptimized character can be fun as well.

Look around you, not everyone who has a particular job, or a particular hobby is “optimized” for that job or hobby. Sometimes, people do things that they aren’t the greatest at. And there’s no problem with this. In fact, if playing an RPG is about sitting around a table and acting out a story, sub-optimal characters have a great potential for giving you more interesting stories. After all, no one is surprised if you 18 STR fighter, with two handed +3 great maul and full plate mail slays a great beast. But your 10 STR fighter, with a rapier and leather armor? Now that’s a story worth telling.

Now admittedly, in OSR games, the difference between an 18 STR fighter and a 12 STR fighter is only a couple pluses to hit, rather than in some later games and other RPGs where you stats really matter for a lot of different things, but even still, a couple pluses to hit can mean a world of difference. But if you want to tell a story, then go ahead and play a sub optimal character. Not every adventurer chooses to be, so why not play one that got his choice made for him. I’ve skipped on better damaging weapons because they’re not in my character’s style. I’ve chosen races that were antithetical to my chosen class, and taken the penalties for that, because I wanted to see what happened. I’ve built characters that had bonuses from trainings in a particular skill, and then taken disadvantages to knock all those bonuses away, because it made an interesting character. And I’ve rolled up characters completely at random and stuck them into the game to see what they do. And I’ve never had any lesser amount of fun playing these characters than I have playing an optimized character.

Which reminds me, I need to write my post on heirloom weapons…

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On Mechanics, Fluff, Tone and the Influence Thereof

Once again, I troll the Penny Arcade forums for content. This time I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to generate some visual aids. Some weeks ago, the user Vaguard made what I thought was a rather innocuous and reasonable claim, that the D&D 4e system exchanged flavor for a unified mechanic that simplifies building encounters. Even if you don’t agree that 4e traded any flavor for mechanics, certainly the idea that mechanics can and do influence the tone of a system just like the fluff does. At least, this seems to be a truism for OSR folk for whom, as Roger at Roles, Rules and Rolls said, “in Old School play … fluff is crunch.”

Apparently it isn’t such a universally accepted concept though. It inspired some 5 or 6 pages of argument over whether mechanics played any part in defining the tone and flavor of a system, eventually ending in everyone agreeing to a tautology that mechanics reinforce an already decided upon flavor. Obviously mechanics, fluff and flavor are all very intertwined, and every bit influences the rest. The flavor you want for your game influences the mechanics you choose to put in (or use as a player), the fluff you include (for at least some types of players) impacts the flavor of your game, and the mechanics that you chose alter the flavor as well. And to prove it, I made some pictures.

Imagine for a moment, that we’re creating a game. In this game, the effect of every swing in combat is determined by a dice roll mechanic which produces a result from 4 to 24. Why such an odd range? Mostly to make illustrating my point easier. In this range of results, the success or failure of the attempted swing changes along that continuum, such that the worst possible results (say killing yourself or a teammate) are down around 4 and 5, while the best possible results (critical hits, one shot kills) are around 23 and 24, with the more mediocre results (basic hit, basic damage) being centered around the middle numbers 13, 14, 15. So the higher the roll, the better your attack.

Now, if you buy the idea that mechanics don’t influence flavor, then I could declare a bit of fluff and flavor at this point that in our game, plug in any mechanic I want to generate those numbers between 4 and 24 and the flavor and tone wouldn’t change at all. I could say that combat in our world is fast and very quickly lethal for each side, and something people avoid at all costs, and it wouldn’t matter what mechanic I stuck in, it would work the same because my fluff and flavor declare it to be so.

I don’t buy it, and here’s why:

Let’s choose the mechanic of 1d21 + 3 to generate our numbers, this is what it looks like according to AnyDice:

Sure, I can say combat is quick and deadly for each side, but really, our system is going to play out mostly randomly. Sometimes it will be really deadly, other times it will be mediocre and each time it’s an equal chance to be either. No one is going to be great or lousy most of the time because each number in our sequence has an equal chance of coming up. D&D players should be intimately familiar with this probability feel because that’s how most d20 rolls work.

Now, let’s chose something else, maybe 2d11+2, or even 4d6:

Again, this really won’t do much to give my flavor of quickly deadly combat much of a boost. In fact, this would actually give us a flavor better described as “combat is generally average and uneventful as combat can be, awesome successes or failures are not common, and most attacks will be average. In fact, average is exactly what this mechanic gives us, which is why D&D uses it for ability score rolls in the form of 3d6.

Now let’s go really far off the beaten path. This time, we’re going to roll 4d6 + 11, if that result is greater than 24, we’re going to subtract 21 and use that for the result, otherwise we’ll keep the roll as the result, then we will add 11 to whatever that result was:

How’s that for a mechanic? In fact, this one is ideal, and the one I would want to use for fast, deadly combat best avoided by all parties. Using this mechanic, you’re not likely to ever be average, either you’re going to kick some serious ass, or you’re going to have yours handed to you when you swing. So here’s how they all look stacked up against one another:


Does anyone seriously think that each of these mechanics would not impart a vastly different flavor and tone onto their game, regardless of what the fluff and other flavor said? Of course game designers generally choose mechanics to model the flavor they’re aiming for, but that doesn’t mean that the mechanic chosen doesn’t help or hinder that flavor.