Archive for category D&D

In Defense of “3d6 (or 4d6-) in Order” Stat Rolls

Over and Papers and Pencils, LS has a post up with an incredibly awesome and useful stat rolling system that bakes in racial ability modifiers. It’s a very neat little thing that wraps racial modifiers into a nice simple package, so go read and enjoy, then come back.

Are you back? Good. Did you see the most important (IMHO) paragraph in that post? If you blinked you probably missed it, and it’s so subtle I doubt even he saw the genius in it. Allow me to quote:

Typically, the first thing I ask my players to do is to roll their ability scores. Which means that their first glimpse of the game is “Roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet.”

Generations of D&D players have chafed at the original proscription that ability scores should be rolled 3d6 in order. Gary Gygax himself appeared to prefer 4d6, drop the lowest and arrange to taste. Other systems use point buy, or more lenient rolling systems and it all sort of culminated in 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e with the “standard array”, eliminating the randomness entirely for pure calculated consistency. And for experienced TTRPG players, this is perfectly fine and acceptable. When you know what you want in the game or from your character, there’s no reason that the rules need to prevent you from playing the character you want.

But take a moment, gentle reader, and consider the humble new player. The beginner. The n00b. Imagine you are brand new to the game, you don’t know what AC is, THAC0 sounds to you like a brand of potato chips and the last +1 anything you saw was a social networking button on a web page. You sit down at the table ready to roll up a new character and your DM starts throwing numbers and jargon at you and tells you to assign the scores to these “attributes” which makes only a small amount of sense in that you know what each word means on its own. Sure the GM tries to help, but really, how important is it for your character that they have a 14 DEX vs that 13 that you rolled? No one knows until your character is fully fleshed out, but this assignment is the first thing you need to do (or perhaps the second after you made a bewildering whirlwind tour through the list of races and classes).

Now, gentle reader, imagine instead you sit down at the table and your GM tells you “OK, roll 3d6 6 times and write the numbers down one after the other. Those are your attributes, don’t worry about what they mean right now, we’ll get to that later. Now based on your scores, here are 2 or 3 classes you’re eligible to play with this character, pick the one that sounds coolest to you.” Suddenly character creation is a lot easier, a lot quicker and ultimately a lot less intimidating, and because you didn’t get blasted with learning a whole bunch of jargon and attributes and classes and races and how they all relate together so that you can make an informed decision, you’ll feel much more comfortable with the idea of “simply” rolling up a new character if you don’t like this one.

Ladies and gentlemen, looking at it from this perspective, the seemingly restrictive and punitive character creation system in OD&D was a thing of simple elegance and genius. It was a simple and un-intimidating way to approach what is in reality (and certainly as the generations have worn on) a complex and interlocking system with plenty of room to experiment and grow. In a world without optimization forums, character builders or in many cases even an experienced DM to show you the ropes, the original character creation method was a brilliantly simple device that allowed players to jump right in by hiding complexity and flattening the learning curve. Even better, unlike a pregen character, it allows a small amount personal choice, just enough to invest you in your character without requiring you to understand everything first.

Going forward I think I’ll require all of my new players to generate their character randomly and in order. Let them get to the good stuff first, and then if they want to change things around later, once they have a feel for things, they’re free to do so. They can discover the character creation mini game later, for now, it’s time to buckle some swash.


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On Female Dwarves

So it’s been a little while since I last wrote anything hasn’t it? Mostly that’s because nothing particularly new has been going on around here. The two campaigns that I was running found themselves on temporary hiatus while the craziness of summer wrapped everyone up. Luckily things are winding down and should be back to normal. I the meantime however, hopefully you’re all enjoying the new play test packet from WotC. I’m certainly excited about the possibilities that the fighter combat superiority dice bring to the table, and the new magic classes look interesting so far.

So about that post title… A few years back, I came across a blog post, or perhaps a forum post that I can no longer find. I would love to finding again and link to and credit the original author, but so far my google-fu has been weak. The post came to mind for me the other day while thinking about various fantasy race tropes and stereotypes and it was a brilliant and imaginative way to handle the “female dwarves with beards” bit that shows up every now and then. What follows is my hazy recollection of that post, if for no other reason than to preserve the idea. If anyone can recall the original author, please let me know.

Many a traveler through the wilds and the world will have noted that dwarves women are a rare sight. Indeed, aside from children, no one is really ever sure if they’ve seen one, leading most people to assume that they must have, and therefore that dwarves women must have beards, which is why you never seem to be able to tell them apart from the men. The truth my friends, is even stranger still. You see, it is well known that the dwarves have a love of mining, and a love of gold and shiny rocks. It is equally well known that they are master craftsmen when it comes to stone, building grand halls and caverns the likes of which even the giants would feel small inside. Perhaps even more well known is the ill temper of the average adventuring dwarf, but why should this be so? What drive possesses dwarves to produce monumental caverns? What need does a dwarf have for a cavern a hundred dwarves tall? Similarly, why the lust for gold and gems? Surely there are enough dwarves miners that others could set themselves to another task? And really, why are so many adventuring dwarves so grumpy? My friends, I tell you it is all for their women. To understand, you must first understand a bit about dwarven love. Dwarven children are often kept away from the outside world, kept safe in dwarven cities under the mountains until one day, the males begin to set off on their adventures, or set off for a life in the mines. But what of the girls? During their younger years, when a male and female dwarf fall in love, they will be married in a grand ceremony, to commemorate the marriage, and the male’s new eternal purpose, for you see, every male quests for his bride. To find her the treasures she adores, the room she needs to grow and blossom into her beautiful self. And what might that beautiful self be? Ask yourself my friend, what other creature do you know that seeks large caverns underground and massive amounts of gold and gems? Yes my friend, the great secret of the dwarves is that as they age, their females slowly change from the figure that we recognize as dwarf, to an altogether more awesome sight, that of a dragon. Her husband spends his life accumulating treasure for her to make her nest upon, to live comfortably. I assure you friend I am not joking, for this explains so much of the world. It explains the ongoing quest of every dwarf to find more treasure and gems. It explains the great halls and caverns, and it explains how so often when an adventurer encounters a dragon, they are at the bottom of some great dungeon, whose halls the creature could not have fit through, and with a pile of treasure that would have taken a dwarf a lifetime to move.

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On Complexity vs Options

Sometimes, when I argue that we need to keep and maintain simple classes in D&D (and usually this comes up in discussions over the current D&D Next Fighter), people mistake that desire for simplicity with a desire to not have options. When I argue that there’s no need for a fighter (or indeed any class) to have a massive list of abilities to choose from, I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t have that option, just that they shouldn’t have to take those options to be effective. I did a little bit of math on this that I think exemplifies my point.

Lets say you sit down at a table with a bunch of players. You hand them the primary rule book and say “We’re going to run an adventure here, roll up a character you want to play, start at level 10.

If you were using Labyrinth Lord, your players would need to read and parse 42 pages of material, assuming that they read all the equipment lists, and all the spell lists. If you wanted them to choose some magic items from the treasure tables, add another 16 pages for a grand total of 58. At the minimum they would need to read a mere 18 pages if they didn’t review the spell lists.

If you were using Advanced Edition Companion from LL, they would need to parse (including all spells and equipment and magic items) 96 pages, and a minimum of 24 pages (including multi-classing) if they didn’t read through the spell lists or treasure.

If you were playing Dark Dungeons (a Rules Cyclopedia clone) and including all the weapon proficiencies, skills spells and treasure, 110 pages, with a minimum of  22 pages without skills, WP, spells and treasure, or 48 with skills and WP.

If you were playing OSRIC, 155 pages, including all spells and treasure. A mere 31 pages without spells and treasure.

So what we have so far is

  • LL – 18 / 58
  • LL AEC – 24 / 96
  • DD – 22 / 48 / 110 (depending on whether you play with out without skills and WP)
  • OSRIC – 31 / 155

So what does it look like for a new player of 4th edition? 20 pages of basic character information, 17 pages of races, 125 pages of classes and their mandatory powers, 13 pages of skills, 19 pages of feats, 45 pages of equipment and 19 pages of rituals. A whopping 258 pages of material that a new player must read through to make a character. If you drop the rituals (as only some classes use them) and the equipment (including magical) you’re down to a minimum of 194 pages just to get started on the game. And unlike previous editions where skills or weapon proficiencies were truly optional rules, 4e doesn’t work if you don’t take powers and feats and such, and so you have to parse all of that.

  • D&D 4e – 194 / 258

That is why I support having simple classes, where powers, feats and special tricks are optional, rather than mandatory and baked in. In my ideal dream system, characters would level as normal, perhaps with general bonuses to hit, damage or stats. As an option, players could choose from among lists of powers, and each of these powers would make the character a bigger specialist in something rather than making them all around better. So as a quick off the cuff example, When leveling from 9 to 10, the fighter would normally get +1/+1 to hit and damage. Instead, the fighter might choose to take the skill “Crushing Blow” where in some limited number of times per combat, the fighter can choose add an addition weapons worth of damage when using any heavy weapon. Under such a system, players who chose the standard leveling method would still be able to hold their own at level 20 against a character that took specializations.

Now other may argue that this ignores places where the games could be alternatively complex, like variable weapon speeds, or THAC0 or other such early fiddly systems that have been improved over time, and they’re right. But I don’t argue that D&D needs to bring back those fiddly bits, I argue that D&D needs to bring back simpler classes. Let’s keep the improved other systems and bring the character complexity back down as well.

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Playing the Game

It’s been a while, and in that time I’ve run through two more sessions, one a D&D Next playtest session, and the other a Labyrinth Lord session.
D&D Next continues to be an entertaining game, and the players certainly enjoy it. The players decided to take on the 40 kobold room as a straight fight, though quickly realised that they would be outnumbered if they didn’t do something. So the wizard cast sleep, and half the kobolds fell asleep. While the physical characters engaged in kobold genocide, the wizard then used mage hand to wind an oil soaked rope among the fray and once it was set, lit the rope on fire. All in all it worked out pretty well. Next definitely needs some form of swarm/squad rule combat however. I tried putting something together on the spot, but it didn’t feel quite right.

Later the party ventured into the Owlbear’s cave, and despite my warnings attempted to fight off, and were almost destroyed by the gray oozes.

The next week, we got back together for a Labyrinth Lord session. However, rather than have the players pick up in the caves again, we’ve changed settings entirely. The LL characters are now Level 3, and they are exploring the Castle of the Mad Archmage, a fantastic megadungeon and simulacrum of the Greyhawk castle by Greyhawk Grognard. In addition we’re using the wonderful Mad Demigod’s Castle from over at DragonsFoot as the first level. I’m running this for a couple of reasons. I want to run a megadungeon, I want to experiment with running without a map, and I want to switch between the games to get a good side by side comparison going. And I’ll be honest, they’re pretty similar, which is awesome to me.

One thing I did notice harkens back to my initiative discussions earlier. I really like group initiative (though the group sometimes hates it) but, it only works if I insist that the players declare their actions upfront and act as a group rather than individuals. If you roll group initiative and then parse each players actions one at a time, you get pretty much the same effect as having individual initiative. I’m considering switching to a combined model as in Dark Dungeons where initiative is still a d6, and characters on each initiative segment act at the same time.

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On Confirmation Bias

So Mike Mearls did an AMA over at Reddit. While nothing that was revealed was particularly ground breaking, there was certainly some good information in there and some useful bits too. Others have hit the highlights already, so I won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say, Mearls has been listening to the feedback they’re getting, and they really do seem serious about trying to make this a sort of rosetta stone version of D&D. One thing I’ve notice though (and perhaps I’m guilty of this myself) is that there is an awful lot of confirmation bias floating around about this. It appears that some old edition fans are reading the additional plans (such as viable non-magical healing) as warnings that 5e will not be the olive branch promised. Conversely there are 4e fans who apparently interpret the comment thread (in which Mearls didn’t even reply) about the Slayer theme as a sign that they’re not done neutering the fighter, and WotC won’t be satisfied until Mages are gods from level 1 and all Fighters are merely henchmen. So as a public service announcement, I’d like to remind the internet that sometimes, deeply reading the words that other people write will provide you with far better and much more accurate information, and can reduce your stress levels greatly.

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The D&D Next Playtest: Session I

So yesterday, after many delays and false starts, the group finally got together and played a session of the D&D Next playtest. It was actually easy to get the players in since we’re already running B2, I just had them “fall into a deep slumber and awake in a CRAZY SHARED DREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” were they are in the same world but different characters. I know, I’m so clever. The group mostly cleared their way through parts of the A cavern, and a lot of fun was had by all.

The group consists of 3 players and myself. One player hasn’t played D&D since 2e, so the LL game we started was their first foray back into gaming. One player hadn’t played any D&D or other RPG before we started LL. The last player grew up playing the homebrew game I’ve mentioned a couple times past, and has played in 2 4e campaigns before we started the LL campaign. Reactions around the table were generally positive, though the player who hadn’t played any D&D before found themselves struggling to keep all the new options available straight. For all the whining a bitching the simple fighter template gets across the RPG world, sometimes it’s nice to be able to hand a basic “hit it with a stick” template to a new player to let them get on their feet before dumping spell casting or skill systems on them. If a new player is really having a good time, eventually they’ll start wanting to learn how to do the other cool stuff.

As to specifics, the dis/advantage system was well liked all around. As a GM, while I enjoyed having the DCs in the adventure module for various things (hearing noises in rooms for example), I found that flipping through the manuals for DCs for other tasks to be annoying and tedious. Admittedly, if I spent the time to make up a DM screen like I had for LL for 5e, I’d probably have an easier time with this, but I definitely found myself missing the simple 1 in 6 checks, or the simple “roll under your stat”checks from LL. In fact, I’d love to maybe see about combining dis/advantage mechanic with the simple stat scores to come up with an even simpler check system, where in you have 3 “DCs” easy (stat check with advantage), normal (stat check), and hard (stat check with disadvantage), but I’m not sure how to do it. Obviously you could say “roll under your stat, and if you have advantage take the lower roll”, but that breaks the normal behavior of the dis/advantage mechanic. And rolling over your stat is no good because that means succeeding gets harder as your attributes increase, even if you apply the stat bonuses to the roles. Honestly, I probably just have to copy out the DC ranges for easy, normal and hard from the manual and into a chart on the DM screen and run with that.

I also found that (from a DM perspective) rolling individual initiative is kind of a pain, and it definitely slows down the battles. When it comes time to fight in LL I say “roll a d6”, and whoever wins that whole side goes first, and play sort of continues in the way it has up until that point. In the playtest, it’s a few minutes while initiatives are rolled and ordered and then play occurs in a much more ordered and linear fashion than it has until that point. As a DM I definitely prefer group initiative.

I also found myself missing morale numbers. As the rouge was being chased down the hallway by a band of 3 kobolds, one player managed a crit on their crossbow shot, and pulverized the lead kobold. Immediately I looked for a morale number to check against for these kobolds and found none. Obviously I could have made any ruling I want on this (and did) but I do enjoy having the numbers handy.

Combats were roughly as fast as they are in LL, but are slowed a bit as I said by individual initiative, and also HP bloat. The kobold chieftain has 44 HP, and once his guards had been dispatched, killing him was kind of a slow inevitable slog as the players ground him up. By comparison, in the original module, the chieftain is certainly bigger than the average kobold, but still only has 8 HP, meaning a 2 or 3 well placed sword swings makes quick work of him.

The player playing the fighter certainly enjoyed the slayer theme.

Overall, the game as written currently plays a lot like LL, and while I think I personally still prefer LL, I could easily see myself continuing to play 5e with my players if that was what they preferred.

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Fixing The Fighter

A comment over at Micah’s place has me thinking about the fighter and how to make the fighter “better”. I’m not sure there’s an adequate way to give the fighter a cool list of moves without degenerating into a 4e “every class feels the same” mess, but a variant mentioned in that comment got me thinking.

What if instead of daily spells, fighters got daily battle control slots. Recognizing that the one thing a fighter should be absolutely bar none the best at is fighting, what if we gave the fighter a limited ability to constantly tip the battle in his favor. Mechanically the way this would play out is a fighter has a limited number of battle control slots per day, like a wizard or cleric has spells per day. But unlike a wizard who has to memorize his spells to create supernatural effects, the fighter simply gets to spend his control slots where he needs them most, at the time he needs them. Once per control slot, the fighter can replace a die roll for any physical effort, whether it’s a to hit roll, a damage roll, a save, a dodge whatever, with a declared number from that die. So for example, it’s a battle against the BBEG, and things are looking grim for the party, and the fighter really needs this next attack to hit. Rather than roll his d20 and hope he gets that 15 or better, the fighter instead burns a control slot, declaring a 19, and thus ensuring the hit. My only limit to this would be that declared 20’s would not be critical hits. They can still be auto-hits, but the fighter should have to roll damage. The reason I say this is to prevent the use of this ability to declare both a hit and max damage in a single slot burn. That doesn’t prevent the fighter from burning another slot to ensure max damage though.

Additionally, let’s give the fighter (exclusively) the house rule that I stole from Zack a while back, the fighter can choose to expand his critical range up to a value equal to half his level round up. In exchange, his critical mis range is increased by the same amount. So a level 1 fighter can choose to attack with a crit range of 19-20 and a fail range of 1-2, while the 4th level fighter can attack with a ranger of 18-20 and 1-3.

What do you think? Will this help fix the fighter?

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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?