Thursday, August 30, 2012

Skills vs. Skilz

One of the arguments I've heard against relying on player narrative where character skills are concerned is that it rewards players who are good narrators at the expense of those who are not. The counter argument, which I seldom hear, is that relying on a numerical system to resolve skill use rewards players who are good number maximizers at the expense of those who are not. By favoring one approach over the other, aren't we just swapping one type of player talent for another?

I've played both approaches--games where every action had an associated number on the character sheet and almost nothing was narrated, and games where characters had no ratings at all beyond a name and a concept, and every action they took involved negotiation between player and GM. In my experience, the presence or absence of rigidly defined character abilities had little impact on whether I enjoyed the game. More than any other factors, my enjoyment depended on who I was playing with and how well the GM handled the session.

That might sound like a cop-out, but RPGs are funny animals. They violate many of the conventions by which we define "a game." I've argued that D&D isn't really a game at all; it's a structured play activity, more akin to building a tower from wooden blocks with a group of friends than to playing parcheesi or Pandemic with friends.

In that regard, isn't trying to shoehorn the standard conventions of games into an RPG a disservice to the RPG? Is it analogous to trying to force elements of poker into chess? Choker might turn out to be a fine game, but it would not be chess, and I suspect that the hybrid would lack the spark that makes both chess and poker shine so brightly.

Experience confirms to me that players who enjoy narrating their characters' skill use are good at narrative, while players who prefer numbers are those who manipulate numbers well. Nothing's wrong with either of those positions, as long as we recognize that both of them introduce their own brand of bias into events around the D&D table.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Setting the Hook

Adventure hooks are the grease that keeps a fantasy roleplaying game campaign moving forward without snagging up between adventures. When hooks work properly, one adventure meshes into another like the cogs in a fine transmission. Players transition from the third adventure to the fourth adventure like Steve McQueen upshifting from 3rd gear to 4th.

In an earlier post on Baiting the Hook, I described how the best way to set hooks in your players is to bait them early. Even with early clues, the time comes when the main attraction needs to be kicked off. Whether you’re looking for the final tug that fully sets a hook in the players or just a different way to dangle some bait, the following list of incidents provides plenty of options.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Hive of the Vampires

This installment of "Adventure Notebook" is a bit higher-level than previous notebooks, and it includes a monster that does not exist in any monster manual, as far as I know--vampiric duergar. Coming up with stats for them is your job. My suggestion is to double their hit dice and give them most of the vampire's special abilities (your choice), but you might want to present them completely differently.

This location would work well tacked onto a larger dungeon. Butt it up to any unexplored door and it's ready to go.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dungeon-a-Day Kickstarter

Dungeon-a-day wrapped up its first outstanding megadungeon project a little over a year ago. The team at Super Genius Games is gearing up to start a whole new megadungeon, and they're funding it through Kickstarter. They've already nearly quadrupled their humble original goal, but the stretch goals are pretty cool, too. If you haven't backed it, the campaign runs until Sunday, August 26. The original Dungeon-a-Day was an impressive undertaking, and I'm sure this next one will be at least as amazing as the first one was.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


“All that matters is that today,
few stood against many.”
Conan the Barbarian
(and John Milius)

 Roleplaying games grew out of wargaming, and to those of us who followed the same vector, the pull of wargaming is still strong. But you don’t need to be an old-timer to feel the tug from strategy and tactics.

Wargaming has important lessons to teach DMs and players about building drama in games. That might surprise folk who don’t play wargames. Pacing, tension, and, above all, balance are major concerns for the wargame scenario designer.

We talk a lot about not railroading players with a one-track adventure plot, but little is said about railroading in combat. I’m not talking about tactics here. In military terms, tactics are the actions taken during a fight—focusing attacks against the hill giant instead of the ogre, using the fireball at the start to soften up the enemy instead of holding it back for later, and other immediate decisions. There might be right and wrong courses of action during a fight, but players usually have complete freedom to choose.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Frozen Hall of Secrets

My apologies for not posting an Adventure Notebook last week. I'd like to say it was a bit hectic because of GenCon, but in fact the frenzy was caused by deadlines and a tussle with food poisoning. All is back to normal now, more or less.

This week's installment is the Frozen Hall of Secrets!

Friday, August 17, 2012

When Skills Fail

It surprises me (sometimes) how many people voice support for the "no skills" approach to D&D. They're pretty much all old-schoolers; not too many 3rd/4th Edition or Pathfinder players among them.

A common thread running through many of the arguments against skills is that they make things too easy; GMs and players who rely on skill rolls are lazy. This argument is a bit odd on its face, since roleplaying is a leisure activity. I see no reason to bind it in philosophies that make the process strenuous.

That aside, I've observed many campaigns that appeared to depend heavily on skill rolls but in fact relied on GM/player interaction more than either the GM or the players let on or possibly were even aware. This has been true not only in D&D but across many different games, including some that use skill rolls to resolve just about everything.

You know what I'm talking about, For the game to advance from A to C, characters must accomplish B. That task might be finding a door, unlocking a chest, spotting a bloodstain, bending a bar/lifting a gate, persuading the victim's lawyer to let you have a look at the will, etc. The player with the key skill rolls 1 on the check, and the GM reaches for his inhaler.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Problem of Perception

One of the most problematic skills in D&D is perception. The problem is that perception isn't entirely a skill. A lot of it is innate, which implies that perhaps it should be an ability score. Yes, it can be improved with training, but so can strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. We all know people who are just more observant than others, without the benefit of any special training. It's hard to miss the advantage in games that treat perception as its own ability, whether as a skill or an attribute.

(This begs the question of why skills and abilities need to be separate at all, but that's a bigger question for another time.)

D&D really suffers in this regard. Perception can't have a stand-alone score because there's no spot for it on the character sheet. So what do you tie it to? Wisdom is the traditional choice, but only because it's the least bad option. Wisdom has the unfortunate consequence of making clerics the best scouts. I don't know about you, but that really breaks the archetype for me. I have nothing against clerics; they're some of my favorite characters. But the cleric shouldn't be your go-to guy when someone needs to peek through a keyhole or find a gem stashed in a merchant's mattress. It doesn't make sense from a story angle or a game angle to let the cleric poach in the rogue's forest that way. It was bad enough when the cleric had the find traps spell.

There are four solutions that I can see.

Option 1 is to add Perception as the seventh ability score. I doubt that anyone sees this happening. The six ability scores are enshrined in marble, whether or not they make sense or serve the game. I appreciate as much as anyone why it can't happen.

Option 2 is step backward to earlier editions that didn't rely on skill rolls. It's true; characters used to perceive things without rolling dice. Finding things like secret doors was more a matter of time than observational skill. If you spent the necessary 10 minutes peering at, poking, tapping, and twisting every inch of a 10-foot wall section, you'd find the secret door. If the DM described a few features and you hit on the idea of pressing the gargoyle's left eye, you might find the door right away and save yourself considerable time and risk from wandering monster rolls. This removes a bit of p'zazz from certain character archetypes; playing the eagle-eyed detective who spots things everyone else misses is fun.

Option 3 is to decouple perception from Wisdom and let it float among the ability scores. There are plenty of occasions where perception depends more on Dexterity than on Wisdom, such as when you're groping along the top shelf of a bookcase in search of the hidden door latch. If the feature that needs noticing is the sort of thing that a sly person would be tuned into, then the roll can be based on Dexterity. If it's the sort of thing that a warrior would be tuned into, then it can be based on Strength. If it's the sort of thing that a wizard would be tuned into, then it can be based on Intelligence. No, this doesn't make a heap of sense, but it would work better 'round the table than always tying Perception to Wisdom.

Option 4 is to eliminate Perception as a skill. Drive an ice pick into it. When some sort of perception is called for, use the skill that most closely relates to the situation. Here are some examples, in 4th Edition wrapping.

  • Finding a secret door? Thievery or Dungeoneering.
  • Tracking a monster to its lair? Nature.
  • Spotting the lich's phylactery? Arcana.
  • Picking out your contact among all the bar's patrons? Streetwise.
  • Noticing the fang marks on the corpse's wrist? Heal.
  • Hearing someone sneaking up on you? Stealth.
  • Spotting the demonic cult tattoo on an assailant's arm? Religion.
This is my top contender. Not only does it a) work and b) make sense, it also c) steers some attention back onto skills that are all too often overlooked. When was the last time your DM called for a Streetwise check? How do you suppose that makes the bard feel? This approach works so well with the skills in 4th Edition D&D that I wish it had been the official choice.

I'd love to see D&D Next take this direction. It's not headed that way right now, but we can lobby.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Tongue-Tied Bard

The introduction of skills into D&D and its offshoots solved some important problems in the game, but those solutions came with costs of their own.

The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear until the first expansion. Try playing the game for a while without a character who can pick locks or disarm traps and you’ll see why thieves were needed. (In some recent, nostalgic OD&D sessions, a common joke was when a character would muse dreamily about a far-off, mythical land called “Greyhawk” where there existed people known as “thieves” who could somehow open a lock without hacking it into ruin with an ax. It was even said that if they pressed an ear to a door, they could sometimes actually hear sounds on the other side!)

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Valuing Time

Early editions of DnD -- by which I mean everything up through 2nd Edition, basically -- incorporated a vital ecology based around movement rates, searching, and wandering monsters. That relationship has eroded in later editions, thanks to the introduction of practically instantaneous searching and brisk walking.

It begins with surprisingly slow movement rates. Assuming that at least some characters were wearing heavy armor, a party of dungeoneers could explore just 60 feet of tunnel in a 10-minute turn. That seems painfully turtlelike, but as the rules explained, it assumed characters were mapping carefully, trying to be quiet, listening at doors and junctions, and searching for traps and secret doors as they went. They could move faster if they wanted to but only at the expense of stealth and caution. Additional searching, such as tossing a chamber for valuables, was another 10 minutes at least, or more if it was a big room.

To illustrate this, look at the sample map here (from the adventure Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie). It shows the first portion of the dungeon that characters enter. Just mapping it -- that is, walking through the corridors along the path shown and looking into but not actually entering most of the rooms -- takes about an hour and a half of game time at 60 feet per ten minutes. Every fight that breaks out adds 10 minutes (extra time beyond actual combat is spent binding wounds, cleaning weapons, looting the dead, and so on). Fighting everything in this section of the dungeon, as characters are likely to do, adds another 80 minutes. Searching a room adds another ten, so fully searching all 24 rooms keeps everyone busy for an additional four hours.

That’s seven hours of in-game exploration and combat.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Care Packages

I recently received two gaming Care packages.

The first came in the mail courtesy of Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games. I'm a big fan of GG's publications and I own several in PDF form (I buy PDFs almost exclusively these days). PDFs are good for reading, not as good for actually running games. Now I have a great collection of Goblinoid's publications, and I intend to put them to good use. Rotworld is of particular interest, since we've recently pulled Pacesetter's Chill off the shelf for another spin.

The other came from good buddy Stan!. A while back, WotC needed more space in its game library, so it cleaned out some old material. Stan! offered to snag a few items for me, and he delivered them at Saturday evening's game -- a sampling of Star Frontiers, GangBusters, and Top Secret.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I'll Take the Low Road

From Journey to the Center of
the Earth
by Edouard Riou
In an earlier column, I looked at ways to keep a road trip interesting. That article was about a standard walk in the sun. A different type of journey with problems and possibilities all its own occurs underground.

Any fantasy world worthy of the label is practically hollowed out by a network of caverns, tunnels, and subterranean grottoes that would make terrestrial cavers wet themselves. Regardless of what it’s called—Underdark, Khyber, Svartalfheim, or just “the underworld”—a journey through that landscape must be a different sort of undertaking from walking or riding between Riverdale and Midvale. Players should never be able to forget that their characters are moving through a dark, alien landscape.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

Pity the Gelatinous Cube

The only known photo
of an actual gelatinous cube
(image by Mmarti)
During a recent D&D Next playtest session, we encountered a gelatinous cube, a critter that regularly appears on Stupidest D&D Monsters Ever* lists. But I got to thinking, as we backed away and easily killed the thing. We laugh at the gelatinous cube because we know what it is. The very first time one appeared in a dungeon, the experience would have been entirely different.

Picture it: You're creeping up the corridor, moving cautiously and checking for secret panels, when the thief who's out front listening at doors and checking for traps suddenly starts screaming and ... melting! You can't see anything attacking him, but he's flailing weakly at something and unable to pull away while the flesh on his arm simply dissolves. The ranger looses an arrow that inexplicably stops in midair and begins dissolving, too. You have no idea what this is -- a spell, a force field of some unknown kind, a magical trap? All you know is that it's liquefying the thief and slowly closing in on you. The thief is begging you not to cut and run, but ... what in Hell is happening?

Nowadays everyone knows it's just a giant Jell-O shot that can be killed easily once you know where it is. But if you hadn't read the Monster Manual, I maintain the g-cube could be pretty terrifying.

* I'm sort of proud that one of my creations, moon rats, made #8 on that list. And I don't care what he says, my moon rats could give that author nightmares and leave his character begging for death.