Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Character Investment in D&D 

Over the last year or two I have informally absorbed a lot of details about current TTRPG trends and practices, Twitter is, of course, not a fully representative medium, but it does manage to distill a lot of things in plain view. I have also had more D&D related conversations with people in real life this past year than ever before, and what I’m seeing on Twitter is matching what I hear from those I speak to about D&D.

The most obvious example of what I’m thinking about here can be found in dozens of Twitter threads where people gush about their characters, I’ve seen people talk about:

Their character’s favorite foods

Their character’s favorite music

Their character’s relationships with other PCs or NPCs

Minute and numerous details about their character’s appearance, habits, etc.

That sort of stuff. 

There is a degree of investment in characters that is fairly intense. It is clear that these people are thinking about their characters… a lot. Creating details to flesh them out and make them “real” to the players. 

“Backstory” is a thing. I have seen endless Twitter threads talking about it, sharing examples, discussing how to use backstory in the game to create player buy-in and interest, and threads where new players express anxiety and stress over “getting the backstory right”, or “not having any idea what sort of backstory my PC would have”.

Now, just to be crystal clear, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH INVESTING IN A PC IN THIS WAY. It’s perfectly fine to play D&D this way, and it clearly resonates with a lot of people.

And of course, that makes sense, role-playing has some powerful impacts on people, assuming the role of a character can be transformative, or at least self-revealing, there is a reason psychiatrists use role-play to build empathy and understanding of self and others. When you roll to hit, when you are talking in character, when your PC almost dies, these things create a strange, gestalt experience where your PCs actions feel like your own.

It’s a kind of magic, and something to be treasured. 

However, there is a shift in perspective here that is worth noting.

For many years TTRPGs like D&D were played in such a way that you didn’t have elaborate backstories as sort of the default. That doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, over the last 40 years I have gamed with a number of people who came to the table with multi-page backstories in tow. But it wasn’t thought of as necessary, and there were a large number of people who simply didn’t bother at all. 

So this isn’t entirely new, but the focus has certainly shifted.

What is the shift? Backstories are not new. Using them to inform the direction of the adventure is not new. Getting interested in the “fluff” of a PC (their favorite food, songs, etc.) isn’t new either.

I think there are two primary changes between now and “BITD”

First, the frequency and scope of this has changed significantly, more people do it, and they are doing more of it. When I was speaking with a friend of mine who runs weekly 5e games he told me that all of his players had backstories for their PCs, and all of them were big, not two sentence summaries like I used to see BITD, but multi-page, elaborate discussions with enough detail to significantly flesh out their PCs.

I think this is far more common today than it was in the past.

The other big difference, and I think the important one, is the focus of the game, on the character or on the player. 

In old school games, the PC is your avatar, your “skin” if you like, but the DM is not challenging your character, they are challenging YOU. 

Yes, you do things as your PC that you couldn’t and wouldn’t do as a person, and yes, to a degree you “become” your PC when you play. But the point of old school systems is to challenge THE PLAYER through the PC. The PC is YOU, but you filtered through the lens of a fantasy setting.

The reason for this is simple, D&D is primarily a game, the game challenges the PLAYER with a dangerous and exciting environment and if they succeed their PC will survive and amass wealth and power. The game is primarily player focused, not character focused. 

This has a number of well known knock-on effects, so in old school games you are told not to get too invested in your PC until they have been around for a few levels, you are less likely to lean on rolls and instead expected to describe what your PC was doing in order to test the player’s decisions, not the PCs stats, the encounters are not balanced as it isn’t expected that the PCs will automatically survive encounters. The almost endless stream of discussion about CR ratings and how they are to be used to help to ensure that encounters are “fair” and “balanced” is a great example of this. Balance is an artifact of catering to the PCs, not the players, as it relies on judging the PCs abilities and competencies to determine if they can survive, not the player’s skill.

The focus today seems to have shifted significantly, from player to character. 

There are probably some meta-reasons for this that are cultural and beyond the scope of what I’m discussing here. Perhaps it’s the increased focus on identity politics in our current culture, since we are very interested in how identity shapes so many aspects of our lives, it makes sense to be focused on fleshing out character identities.

Perhaps it’s the increasing influence of ‘narrative’ elements on gaming, with the shift to treating D&D as “storytelling” and the rise of more narrative mechanics in newer games, this may simply be the result of players absorbing that shift and expressing it through their characters. 

I’m sure there are other possible explanations.

The last issue related to this that comes to mind is that there is an important difference between developing your character through backstory and building elaborate character details like favorite drinks, favorite music, etc, before play, and developing your character primarily through play. 

In the first case, your character comes to a certain degree fully formed, with motivations, expectations and a history. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that you are boxed in to a certain degree, and leads to a lot of “but my character would do that!” moments. 

In old school games, your actions at the table become your backstory, and you discover your character as you play. Rather than put the process of discovering your character into the phase before you start playing, that process is shifted to the table, so you discover your PC through their actions and the reaction of the game world to their actions. 

Of course, players with backstories can do this as well, but the larger the backstory, the more involved and deep it is, the more constraints it puts on how the character will be played. Yes, an elaborate backstory can also inspire role play and exciting adventures, it isn’t necessarily a straight jacket on how the character is played. But it does change the tone.

As just one example, players in my games sometimes say, “but what would my character do?” when presented with challenging situations, but most often they say, “what should I do?”, because the focus is on them, not their PCs.  I find that the more backstory focused a player is, the more likely they are to want to know what their character would do in situations like these.

I don’t think there are any big lessons to be learned here, the only real potential negative aspects of elaborate character backstories and focusing on the character rather than the player that I have seen are the anxiety associated with creating these backstories and the trauma and emotional damage done by character death.

I have witnessed the former on Twitter and first hand. There are regular threads on Twitter where new players express concern over their backstories, or even ask if they are going to be able to play properly without an elaborate backstory for their PC. We added a new player to one of my after school games recently, and when she arrived at the first session she was very awkward and uncomfortable. After the session we talked and I asked what had made the session difficult, her response was that she hadn't’ been able to come up with a good backstory for her PC so she was embarrassed and concerned that the other players wouldn’t like her PC. It’s bad enough to have performance anxiety during the game, but this player arrived expecting the worst because she hadn’t prepared a multi-page backstory beforehand. Clearly the expectations are shifting, as I didn’t ask for a backstory at all, and none of the players who were in the game had one either.

With respect to character death, yes, “old school” gamers can get invested in their PCs, that isn’t new at all. But it has been noted that the most current version of D&D softens up PC death considerably, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. If you show up to the table with an elaborate, lovingly crafted backstory that draws on the lore of the game world and creates a vibrant, fleshed out character that feels “real”, it’s not a huge surprise that you might have some problems when your PC dies in the second session. 

And I’ve seen this too. People posting on Twitter about depression associated with a character death, or people tsk tsking DMs who “needlessly kill off PCs” because of the traumatic effect that can have. I’ve even seen it bandied about that you should get permission from your players before their PCs can die in game. There could be any number of reasons for this last piece of advice, but I can’t help but think it’s connected to the fact that the game is character focused and the players have invested so much in developing the character that character death is a problem.  

At the end of the day I think it's important to be up front with your players about what is expected in the game, and to embrace player investment no matter what form it takes. So if a player wants a big backstory then they should have one! Never miss an opportunity to get players to buy-in to the game. But it is also important to be clear about what this shift in focus will mean at the table. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Collaborative and Emergent Play in Dungeons and Dragons

Sometimes when you are on social media you start to notice trends or patterns in the general day to day discussions. One that I have been noticing lately has come up is the tendency to put more responsibility on the shoulders of the DM/ref in D&D games.

There is a lot of discussion about D&D is a “group game”, and a “collaborative process”, and I think this is all to the good. D&D IS a collaborative game, the ref and the players are all in it together, and unless both work to make the game fun it won’t be fun. 

And there is a lot of discussion of how D&D is “flawed” as it doesn’t involve more mechanics that share power with the players. So much so that people have suggested importing mechanics from other games into D&D (e.g. replacing hard pass/fail mechanics with “fail forward” mechanics). Again, I have no issue with this, fail forward mechanics can work perfectly well in D&D, and add a lot to the experience. I used them in our SWN campaign and they were great.

I have even seen people suggest that players should be able to change the fiction if they don’t like the result, e.g. if someone’s PC is killed they should be able to say, “no, they aren’t” and take a “consequence” instead, that sort of thing. I have no issue with any of this. I don’t do these things in my game as I play 1e AD&D and I find it works well without them, and produces a different (but not ‘better”) experience at the table. So all of this is fine.

But on the other side of the coin, I think people are doing what they normally do when a shiny new thing is created, they are focusing on the benefits but ignoring the costs. Saying that there are “costs” to something doesn’t invalidate the thing, there are costs to EVERYTHING. But ignoring the costs is an issue too, as they can lead to problems of their own.

Here are a few examples.

Fail forward mechanics: Yes, they are fun and add something to the game. However, they also put work on the ref. The ref has to come up with consequences for “very bad”, “bad”, “neutral”, “good” and “very good” results. Yes, they can do this collaboratively with the players (“what do you think would be a good negative consequence”), but the point is that they have to organize and execute the process, and in many systems adjudicate it (e.g.decide if the consequences are fair or make sense). 

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be used or are “bad design”, but they do add work to the ref’s plate.

I’ve seen a lot of discussions about “making combat interesting” in the game as well. And the suggestions I’ve seen also put a bigger burden on the ref. So I’ve seen people suggest switching systems entirely, fudging with dice rolls to “add to the excitement”, ensuring that every combat has a deeper meaning or value, etc.

All of these are workable solutions, but again, they put a lot of responsibility on the ref. Switching systems means the ref has to learn the system to run it, yes, so do the players, but the ref generally has to know as much or more of the system to run it than the players do to play. Fudging with dice results puts the burden on the ref to decide when to do it and when not to do it, how much to ‘fudge’, and if they don’t want the players to know, hiding it from them. The desire for “dramatic combat” means it has to be orchestrated and “directed” by the ref, and that’s a huge additional burden on top of managing the mechanics and all of the NPC/Monsters. 

In combat players are responsible for their PCs, the ref is responsible for EVERYTHING ELSE. It’s not remotely balanced, no matter how much power your share and consensus you use. 

Related to this experience is the idea of creating the perfect, most immersive, dramatic experience at the table. I blame “story games” for this idea. Of course, before “story games” became popular there was still a desire to create a fun game, that’s universal. But now I see additional demands that every session have a pattern to it, e.g. initial challenge and setback, mounting tension, resolution of tension, etc. 

The desire is to have some sort of peak dramatic experience by ensuring you hit certain marks in every session. I see this regularly in calls to have “ a bit of RP, a bit of combat and a bit of exploration” in EVERY session, or to ensure that your combat has RP in it every time, or to make sure that one of these (or others) doesn’t dominate the game. 

Another way this manifests itself is in the desire to ensure that “everyone has a chance to shine” at the table. This takes the form of ensuring that every session has a challenge that is tailored to one of the PCs, or building something from the PCs background into the game so that they can be more invested. 

Another one I saw today was that players should show up at the table with a motivation for adventuring, presumably baked into their background/backstory. Not just the classic “My PC wants to adventure!” but something more specific that they can work towards in the game, a personal goal of some sort that motivates them in the game.

What’s the Problem?

All of these are good ideas, and can be implemented in a D&D game to create excitement, investment and fun play. I believe this, and I have seen it work at the table. 

However, all of these suggestions put more work on the ref. 

Fail forward mechanics require the ref to come up with options, in a “pass fail” system the dice roll does the work and you are done. Yes, it lacks “nuance” and yes, it leads to situations where the PC “can’t do anything” due to their bad roll, but it also makes more work for the ref. 

When I run the combat in my game I don’t try to hit any “beats”, I don’t try and ensure that it’s “dramatic”, I don’t shift up the HP of monsters as the fight is “too easy”, nor do I depower or nerf monsters mid-fight to ensure that it isn’t “too hard”. I just run the fight and what happens, happens. I don’t feel the need to make every fight “meaningful”, the players bring the meaning to the fight, not me. I don’t secretly reveal that the big bad is actually the party paladin’s FATHER in order to ramp up the significance of the fight. 

I don’t manage my game so there is RP in every session, or so every session has a bit of everything, or that every session connects to some aspect of the PCs backstory, or that every session has a challenge tailored to each one of the PCs. 

I also don’t require that PCs have a “backstory” to inform the sessions I create, the only backstory they need is the desire to adventure. That’s it.

I do none of these things, yet I still manage to run exciting, fun, engaging games. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t do these things if they work for you at your D&D table. If you find them easy to do or that they are manageable then have at it. But if they are not working for you, if you find yourself burnt out, overwhelmed or challenged, you might want to consider a different approach.

Emergent Meaning

Rather than place these things into my game artificially to “make it happen” at the table, I run a game where the PC’s actions in the game creates the meaning emergently, organically, as they play. It’s easiest to show this with an example.

My latest campaign started in September, and I had a player ask me about backstories/motivations. She was overwhelmed at the idea of creating a backstory and motivations for her character. For whatever reason (and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter why) she was not feeling it. 

So I told her this, “You are a warrior, that’s your backstory”. So she started with that. Then we adventured. In the first adventure they were purchasing mounts and the seller (during price negotiations) revealed that he had been recently robbed. That was the result of an encounter reaction roll to see if he would lower the price. The result was positive, so he did lower the price, and I had to interpret it, so that is what I went with.

Well, for whatever reason that resonated with the player, she became immediately invested in figuring out who had robbed this guy and helping him out. That became her motivation, she then directed things for a while, got in touch with the local thieves guild to help track down the miscreant, and convinced the party to go after him. I had none of it planned of course, but it took up about 4 sessions to work it all out.

That became a defining aspect of her character. From then on her fighter looked for instances where she could help out others, and had an issue with thieves. There was no backstory needed for this, it didn’t require the player to cook one up, and I didn’t have to do anything to make it happen, I didn’t have to create a specific encounter that would play to her character’s motivations, or add an element from her backstory to the game, it emerged from play.

I saw a thread today on Twitter where a DM was lamenting that players didn’t have motivations for their characters, and that players at minimum should show up with some specific motivation for their PC to help them take part in the adventure.

I didn’t respond, but what I wanted to say was, “Don’t worry about it, let them adventure in the world and motivations will emerge from play”. I’ve been doing this for a quite a while and it works. All you really need is one encounter, one session, and by the end the PCs will have interacted with the game world in such a way as to create motivations and goals. I run four concurrent AD&D campaigns, and I have introduced hundreds of players to the game over the last 35 years, not ONE of them had a backstory beyond their class, and I haven’t done any of the things I mentioned above to create a “dramatic” game. 

You CAN do these things if they work for you, but you don’t HAVE TO DO THEM to have an exciting, engaging role-playing experience. Better still (for me at least) is that I don’t feel the need to fine tune the game to “maximize player fun”. Sometimes we have a session where the players get their asses kicked, sometimes they walk all over their opponents. Some of their opponents are “meaningful” to them, some are not. Some players “shine” more than others, some sessions are all RP, some are all combat, some all exploration, some all resource management, etc. 

NONE OF THIS is managed by me. It is ALL the result of me creating an environment and the players making choices through their characters. The benefit is that this is a lot less work for me as the ref, as to be blunt, I HAVE ENOUGH TO DO AS IT IS. Just having the game world react to my player’s crazy antics is a full time job. I don’t need to ensure all these other things happen to, instead I let them emerge from game play. 

It can be a bit difficult to get into this mindset. When a session goes badly, or doesn’t end up being as fun as a previous session, or things go badly for the PCs and the players get frustrated, you are tempted to “manage” things to ensure that EVERY session is “fun”. I get that, and I get that using the tools I have discussed above can get you there. It is nice when everyone has something to contribute, it is nice when sessions are dramatic. 

But putting the weight on the ref’s shoulders to make sure these things happen in a D&D game is a lot to ask. An alternative is to forget all of those things, abandon the role of “director” or “author” and settle on the role of “referee”, a neutral adjudicator whose job it is to populate the game world and have it react to what the players choose to do through their PCs. This essentially shares the burden for these things with the PCs. They are the ones whose actions create meaning in the game world. I find this takes off a lot of the load from me and let’s me focus on the myriad other things needed to run a game.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Emulating Character Knowledge in D&D: Abstraction Versus Interaction

Image by Grandanvil on Deviantart -

Sometimes the players have a sense of how to do things their characters can do, so for example, a player may have ridden a horse, played cards, shot a bow, etc. However, sometimes a player will have NO IDEA WHATSOEVER how to do something their character can do. 

In a case like this you can either use an existing mechanic if it applies, assign odds that the action will be successful and roll if there is no existing mechanic, or you can walk through the situation with prompts. I do the latter. Today we had an encounter just like that. The party decided they wanted to buy a ship, but they were just short on gold. So The party thief asked if he could do some pick pocketing to cover the difference. I said, “sure”, and he said he wanted to roll for it. 

I said, “wait a second, what are you doing”?

He said, “I’ll go to the market and pickpocket someone”. I said, “OK, you are in the market, there are hundreds of people around you, moving, buying things, talking, city guards are walking around, who are you going to pickpocket?” 

PLAYER: “I don’t know”. 

So there we were. The PLAYER has no idea how to pick a pocket, what to do, what to plan, it’s entirely foreign to him. The CHARACTER however would no doubt be very familiar with what you have to do to set up a successful pickpocket. In a situation like this I ask leading questions to emulate their skill without reducing it all to a boring, single roll. 

Me: “Let’s talk this through, you are a thief, you have broken into places and you have pickpocketed before. So you would think about a few things: who to target, avoiding detection, and what to do if it goes wrong.” So how do you want to handle those?”

There was some conversation. PLAYER:”Should I stay in one place or move around?” Me:”If you stay in one place people will pass by you, so your location matters, and you can tailor your location to what you think will be the most helpful. if you move around, location isn’t fixed but you will see more potential targets and you won’t draw as much attention as you aren’t staying in one spot”.

Rather than tell them what to do, or give them an arbitrary suggestion, I detail what I think a thief would think about in this situation, and outline pluses and minuses. Players often say things like, “My thief character would know the best place to stand” and stuff like that, instead of just answering them with a “OK, you know that the best place to stand is X”, I say, “standing here is good for this but bad for that, standing there is good for one thing but bad for another”

In short, don’t tell them “THE ANSWER”, tell them some possibilities and let them weigh them out, this allows the player to have agency but somewhat emulates the idea that the character would know what they are doing.  

So he decided to stay in one place. REF: “Where do you want to set up”. We call up the map, he picks a part of the market where the tents border on a section of buildings with narrow alleyways between them. REF: “Anywhere in particular?”. 

He responds, “I should stay near a tent that sells expensive stuff, so that wealthy people will come there.” Now he’s getting into it. “OK, here are some of the tents in the area, tack and harness, knives and swords, religious symbols, rugs, custom armor and weapons, exotic mounts and animals …” 

PLAYER: “Stop”

REF: “Yes?”

PLAYER: “Isn’t fighting a big deal here, and Lords of the Houses wear custom armor and stuff?” 

REF: “Yes”. 

PLAYER: “And what sort of mounts?” 

This is a tropical setting, in a marshland, giant lizards are common mounts, horses are only found in the city with its even streets, and are prized for their speed and the status they show as they are expensive. 

REF:”Horses and jaguars” 

PLAYER: “I set up out about 5 tents away from the armor and mounts tents, near the edge where the crowd passes by. I’ll look for wealthy patrons going to either one of these tents.”

Some leading questions have got him thinking about the anatomy of the job. Now he asked one of the other players (the party assassin in this case) to walk around the area where he was standing and keep watch for the ward patrols. If one showed up, he would whistle a signal. Then they started to discuss what happens if he failed to pickpocket and was discovered. The party illusionist agreed to stand nearby in the crowd towards the buildings that bordered the market. If the pickpocket attempt went sour then the thief was to bolt in his direction. When he passed the illusionist would cast change self on the thief, and he could slip into the crowd and escape. 

IMC I have spell research rules, and this was a 2nd level version of the spell change self that the illusionist can cast on others (the 1st lv version cannot do this)

So now it was just a matter of time. The thief set up and waited. 

REF: “So who do you target?” The player thinks for a time and says, “Someone who looks wealthy”. 

REF:”What do you mean, ‘looks wealthy’”

PLAYER: “Wearing nice jewelry and clothing, large money purse, walks like they own the place, that sort of thing.”

So I assume that about one person per turn will be “wealthy looking” enough to merit attention, and I describe the first person to qualify, “Tall saturnine lizard man with a large red ruby ring, an elaborate surcoat and shiny leather boots, you can just see his money purse on his belt under his left arm. He is well built, muscular, carries a dagger.” 

In the city, open carry with anything other than a dagger or staff will get the city watch on your tail or get you challenged by a Lord of one of the Houses. 

PLAYER: “He only has one ring, how big is the money purse?”  

REF: “There is a med sized belt pouch with the tell tale jangle of coins on the inside, it looks to hold about 50 coins and is maybe half full.” 

Here I'm giving the PC information that I figure a thief would know, they would be able to guess at the amount of coins a pouch could hold based on a look and how much they were holding based on sound.

PLAYER: “Not interested” 

REF: “OK, another turn goes by and you see a woman with an elaborate gold trimmed and embossed and engraved steel breastplate with the symbol of an orange flower on a field of green. She wears a sword openly, a cloak, several rings, and as she walks you see a large money bag on her hip that seems full of coin as well, this one perhaps 100 coins. She has two armored men following behind her that have a similar crest, they are dressed in chainmail and carry heavy maces.” 

PLAYER:”She carries the sword openly?”

REF: “Yes”. 

PLAYER: “She must be a Lord or maybe the city watch, hard pass.” 

The player was tapping into his knowledge of the setting, weapons restrictions, martial practices, the encounter was drawing out this knowledge to manage the situation. This is so much more fun than, “I pick someone rich looking roll my pick pockets percentage.” 

So another turn passes. I roll and an actual ward patrol comes by.

REF:” A group of soldiers come towards your spot, it is a ward patrol, 5 guards in Lorica Hamata with broadsword and axe, 3 crossbowmen, 3 soldiers on giant frogs with short swords and javelins, a sergeant with trident and crossbow and a white robed druid, his left arm wrapped in thorny vines, and his gorilla mask hiding his face. All guards wear the crest of House Ain, a red tent with a red sword suspended above, on a field of black. They ride towards your position. Are you going to do anything?” 

This was just me keeping him on his toes. They weren’t after him, but he wouldn’t know that. He didn’t take the bait though. 

PLAYER: “I do nothing.” 

REF:”They pass by, and in another turn and you spot a potential target, this one is an old rakasta, a bit less physically intimidating, he appears out of shape and languid. He is dressed in fine silks of dark orange with a wide brimmed yellow hat crested with green and gold feathers. He rides a giant lizard on a large leather saddle. Walking in front of him are two burly lizard men, wearing only kilts, each of which has no apparent weapons. They are clearing the crowd ahead of the man and his giant lizard. You notice that the man has a large money bag slung across his chest that bulges with coins, and he carries an ornate jeweled silver dagger on his belt. His fingers have several large rings, he has a jeweled bracer on one arm, and his saddle is embossed with brass trim.”

I find that the more information I give, the more they ask for.

PLAYER: “I look at his mount, are there any bags on the saddle or elsewhere within easy reach?” 

REF: “On the back of the saddle there is a metal cylinder of some kind that looks out of place and added on, other than that there is an obvious waterskin on the left back of the saddle and a bag hanging off the right side.”

The player fixated on the metal cylinder. Smart lad. I decided that this was a wealthy merchant, the lizard men were his guards, and he carried gems on his person (he was there to pick up mounts) and the cylinder kept them safe.

So the player decided that this was his mark. He moved in and made a close pass walking behind them, he checked out the cylinder and asked if it looked like it could be pried off. At this point I suggested a find traps roll to see if he could tell if it could be removed.

He made that roll, so I told him that the cylinder itself was likely made of iron, but it was held on to a regular saddle with two iron staples, and the thief had a short crowbar he carried with him as part of his thieves tools. He could slip it between the saddle and the cylinder, give it a good wrench, and it should come off. He said he wanted to try. I told him that it would require two rolls, first, a remove traps roll to wrench it off, and a pick pockets roll to do so without being noticed. 

However, I told him that if he just walked over and tried to pry it off it would definitely alert the rider. He needed to do something to distract him to get the chance to even try to remove it without being noticed. There was some conversation, and he decided to follow the man for a time until something came up to distract him and his guards.

I told him that there was a 1 in 6 chance of a distraction significant enough to keep their attention for every turn they were in the market, and I would roll to see how many turns they were there. 

I rolled 4 turns. Then I rolled every turn, a 2, a 4 then a 1 on turn 3. So I described it this way:

“You see a giant boar with a druid mounted on top, surrounded by baskets of mistletoe in a ring around him. The boar is heading in the same direction as the lizard.” 

PLAYER: “I get closer”

REF: “The boar is just slightly ahead of the giant lizard and neither the lizard men guards nor your target seems to notice”. 

PLAYER: “I get right up beside the rear of the lizard, near the cylinder.” 

REF: “The giant boar crosses in front of the giant lizard, and it has to stop suddenly, with your target pulling on the reins.” 

PLAYER: “I make a move for the cylinder with my crowbar”

REF: “OK, first make a remove traps roll to slip in the crowbar and pry it off, then make a pick pockets roll to see if you did this in a way that wasn’t noticed because the giant lizard was lurching back and the rider and guards were distracted.” 

I could have just given it to him because of the situation, but I figured there is an art to doing this in such a way as it harmonizes with the movement of the giant lizard and doesn’t stand out. So he rolled to pry off the cylinder (the remove traps roll), and was successful. 

REF: “You slide the crowbar between the cylinder and the saddle and pry it, with a single firm wrench the cylinder comes free into your hand. Now let’s see if anyone noticed, roll your Pick Pockets attempt.” He rolled, he failed, and failed by enough that he was noticed. 

REF:”One of the lizard men turns and sees you stuffing the cylinder under your arm. He shouts at you”. 

PLAYER: “I bolt towards the illusionist”. 

Now, I had them roll initiative, the thief rolled a 2, the lizard man that noticed him rolled a 4. So the thief got 2 segments of movement. He’s a rakasta, so his movement rate is 15”, so he covers 30’, now the lizard man and his fellow guard start running, they have a movement rate of 12”. So in segment 3 the thief ran 15’ putting him at 45’ away from the lizard, the lizard men ran 12’ from the front of the giant lizard, so they are now approximately 45’ away from the thief. The next segment the thief runs 15’, they run 12’, so they are now 48’ away from him, and next round they will be 51’ away as he is faster. He reaches the illusionist and he casts change self on the thief, making him look like a farmer.

The last roll I have to make is to see if the guards noticed the illusionist doing the whamma jamma casting the spell, 1 in 6 chance of that, they fail, the thief is now in the clear, looking like someone else. He waits until the lizard men and the target on the giant lizard pass, then he slips off through the crowd to rendezvous with the illusionist and assassin later. 


I know refs that would take a player in this situation and just say, “OK, you go to the market, roll your PP percentage to see if you grab some cash from someone”, and only if they failed and were detected would anything come of it. I’m fine with that, and it can work well enough, but I find this method to be FAR more interesting and far more challenging to the player. 

What is interesting here is that the player had to do a lot of groundwork before making his rolls, and to get that groundwork done I had to ask a lot of leading questions. This is the imperfect solution to the fact that the player doesn’t know what the character knows, but the character is supposed to be skilled. To mimic that without just making a single resolution roll, I ask the leading questions, presenting multiple options to the players rather than just saying, “your PLAYER would know that”. This gives the player input, and makes it a tense, uncertain situation.

But it also mimics how the CHARACTER would be knowledgeable about doing this sort of thing, even if the player is not. This balance point, between metagaming and just fully abstracting an action with a dice roll, is the goal for me when adjudicating this sort of thing. 

The haul? 5 gems, a scroll and a potion. It should be enough when added to their funds to get them their merchant galley, it will be interesting if the thief remembers to give the guild a cut, and if he doesn’t, I will have to roll to see if they find out about the job… 

Urban adventures are where it is at.

Monday, November 30, 2020


Powergaming in D&D - A Rumination

LOL, “Rumination”, that’s a word I don’t use anywhere near often enough.

Another week, another gaming concept does the rounds on Twitter AS IF IT HAS NEVER BEEN DISCUSSED BEFORE!!!!

This week it was POWERGAMING, is it good, is it bad!!!! For the most part I have seen comments that hover around the idea that it’s a problem if there is a big disparity. If one PC has substantially more power than all of the others the game can be a drag for those others.

And I basically agree with this perspective, but to a point.

In addition to this relatively common view, I have seen another view expressed, that it is really a system issue. Because you can’t discuss any issue in TTRPG gaming without blaming D&D for “bad design”. Ignore the fact I have run into powergamers in every game I’ve ever played, it is still assumed to be a “D&D design issue” and if you don’t like it you should “play other games”.

I’ve given up engaging people on these issues, I’ve found that those who despise D&D for whatever reason (it’s hiring practices, the racial issues embedded in the game, it’s pass/fail mechanics, etc.) are almost genetically compelled to blame any problem on game design. And once that happens, the conversation is over. 

It’s not that there aren’t design issues with D&D, OF COURSE THERE ARE. It’s that people tend to blame all issues in D&D on game design, where style of play is often the main issue.

So back to powergaming. I’m going to tell two anecdotes, then discuss some mechanics.

Ranger Danger

About 8 years ago I ran a group of PCs through Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. We made up pregens for this module, and to save time rather than having them roll to get the PCs they wanted, I grabbed a copy of the AD&D Rogues Gallery and they rolled on the tables to get PC stats. That way they would automatically qualify for whatever class they decided to play.

One of my players wanted a ranger, and he rolled the following entry:







For real. 

Leave it to your players to find the one wildly powerful result on an otherwise unremarkable table. 

So I had to make a decision, would I allow the player to run this PC despite the fact he was wildly over on ability scores or would I ask him to roll again. 

Well, fair is fair, so he ran the PC.

We gamed for a full week, five eight hour days on that module. And here’s the interesting thing, the player in question did not dominate the game, he almost died twice, and for the most part his wildly high statistics didn’t influence the game in any significant way. He did no better or no worse than any other player in the game.

Segway to another example, I’m playing an illusionist in an AD&D game, and I roll… wait for it… 1 HP to start!. I was in a party with a monk and a ranger (all 1st level) and I had a single, solitary HP. If ANYTHING hit me I was dead, my only weapon was a dagger and I was bad at using it, I had one spell (phantasmal force) and I had an AC of 8. 

The monk died before I did. I survived as long as anyone did in that campaign, and I contributed in ways other than melee and pew pew spells. I threw a lot of oil flasks then lit them. I distracted, redirected and otherwise confused enemies with my one spell. 

In short, having the absolute worst stats in the group didn’t really matter to the outcome of the game, or my usefulness at the table.

Making Sense of the Statistics

So clearly there is something going on here, am I an outlier? Am I doing it wrong? No, I think the issue is that the game has different play styles, and if you play it a particular way you will have these sorts of problems. 

As it happens, AD&D has everything you need to run a game where “powergaming” isn’t an issue, for the most part. This is likely due to the fact that Gygax ran a competitive game where powergamers, min-maxers and rules lawyers were a concern, one addressed through the game mechanics. So why have powergamers, min-maxers etc. been viewed as a problem for decades now?

I think the main reasons that people have issues with this are:

They run a combat focused version of D&D

They “soften” the game to avoid regular deaths 

Despite the memes and the reputation, AD&D solves both of these problems with its base design. In short, you will only have an issue with powergamers if you run the game in a particular way, one that ignores a lot of the base design of the game.

Now, the first objection here is that “D&D is all about combat!”, so how can you run an AD&D game that doesn’t have the powergamer problem? The key observation here is that, as written, AD&D is extremely deadly. 

But people don’t run it that way. 

Let me give an example, then a list.

A while back I saw a discussion on Twitter about allowing players to run avian PCs like aarakocra, they were bemoaning the fact that giving a low level PC flight would make the game "too easy" and they would dominate the game. I found this interesting, as in AD&D flight, though useful, would be a challenge for a few reasons:

1. No heavy armor so AC is worse

2. You become an obvious target in combat as you are a threat

3. If your HP drop below half you fall from the sky, taking lots of damage

In short, yes, it was an advantage, but if you weren't careful it was actually MORE dangerous to have a flying PC. AD&D balances advantages against disadvantages, but DMs frequently drop the disadvantages (they are boring, they slow down play, etc.) then wonder why certain PCs are "too powerful" for the game.

There are so many examples of this its ridiculous, I regularly see AD&D games where they:

1 Use exaggerated stat creation methods in a game where the bonuses are big and clustered at the high end

2 Allow players to pick PC classes and then tailor the ability stats to those

3 Give “bonus” HP to the starting PCs, or let them take the average 

4 Start PCs higher than 1st level but start them in 1st level adventures

5 Allow henchmen without using loyalty rules

6 Allow the use of spells but ignore material component restrictions

7 Allow them to carry tons of stuff without encumbrance restrictions

8 Allow them to carry “endless” arrows or torches

9 Let them get up and run around after being healed back from under 0 HP

10 House rule initiative in ways that help the party / ignore flanking rules etc.

11 Arbitrarily lower HP/nerf monsters to help the players win and hit a story “beat”

12 Don’t use morale rules

13 Don’t use grappling and overbearing rules*

14 Place magic items rather than rolling for them

15 Ignore alignment restrictions on classes who have them

16 Ignore weapons restrictions on classes that have them

17 Use the same monsters over and over

18 Ignore the PCs reputations in the game world

19 Introduce house rules that favor the players (e.g. crits)

20 Ignore class limits on treasure/adventuring

*No one uses 1st edition grappling rules, they are too fiddly, but some mechanically different but more or less equivalent system 

I could probably mention more if I put my mind to it, and I’m sure there are similar lists for other versions of D&D and other games. The point being that one of the reasons why powergamers are a problem is that the game is intentionally run on “easy mode” by ignoring a ton of the rules as otherwise it would be “too deadly”. This allows “powergamers” to survive and then dominate the game.

I tend to avoid modifying or ignoring rules that make the game challenging for exactly this reason, if you do so you will of course help out the characters at the lower end. But you will also permit PCs at the higher end to run amok. And that produces the resentment everyone is concerned about.

When you run AD&D with all of these rules intact you discover something interesting. I have been running AD&D using these rules for the last 8 years, and we have had a good subset of deaths to use as a baseline for evaluation. Deaths have fallen primarily into two categories: the death of “weak” characters (e.g. magic-users) and the death of “powerful” characters, often fighters, who take the lead because they have the most HP / lowest AC, and as a result take the most punishment and often die.

It ends up that “powergamers” are quite often the ones who suffer in a game that is run with the standard rules of AD&D. They are expected to do the fighting, to take the lead, as they have the chops for it, so they are often left dead on the dungeon floor.


So why, all other things being equal, do powergamers do badly in games like AD&D, even in some cases worse than their less optimized fellow adventurers? AD&D is packed with effects/monsters/spells that make high HP, good stats, magic items and saves and such less significant, and powergamers as a whole like to mix it up, be first in line, be the one to “win” the day, so they are far more likely to run up against these things. 

There are a multitude of examples:

A. Creatures that can only be hit by magic weapons 

B. Creatures with psionics 

C. Creatures with magic resistance have some degree of immunity to spell casters

D. Save or die poison, save or die anything! 

E. Monsters with special attacks: Green slimes, shambling mounds, meazels

F. Paralysis

G. Petrification

H. Energy drain

I. No save spells and effects 

J. Mass combat (e.g. individual targets swarmed by mooks)

K. Creatures with multiple attacks 

L. Auto-hit on stunned/helpless creatures

M. Traps

N. Assassination

O. AOE spells

P. Unbalanced encounter tables

Again, the list is longer than this, but you get the idea. A single green slime can take out a party, a shambling mound can resist many forms of attack, a carrion crawler gets 8 attacks per round and all force a paralyzation save. 

Good stats, spells and magic items will only help you so much.

And spells. A 1st level sleep spell puts a 1st to 4th level PC down with no save. Slit their throat, that's the ballgame. And that’s a 1st level spell. So your badass 3rd level barbarian with 18 in STR and CON, AC of 2 and a good 30 hp can be taken down by a 1hp wizard with sleep.


I watched with anticipation and glee as a bold as brass party of mid level PCs (5th to 7th level, 8 members) were taken down by a 4th level magic-user with web and stinking cloud. I once saw an entire party buy the farm (at a convention game) with one well placed rock to mud spell. 

The list is really quite long. 

I have seen this happen so often it is almost a truism of play in AD&D and many older edition games: the PCs with the best stats are very likely to be the ones who die. The only meaningful exception I have found to this is the game where you have a min-maxer/powergamer who stays OUT of combat and holds back. That’s a pretty rare thing, but it has happened.

Otherwise, the powergamer is not a problem for AD&D. The single most important correlating factor with success in AD&D (and I suspect many older editions) is this:

Skilled play.

That’s it. You can stack your PC however you want, you can come into the dungeon loaded for bear with magic items. But all of it is for naught if you don’t play smart and avoid conflict where possible. I don’t even have to make a special attempt to make it happen. I don’t “go after” powergamers, make things harder for them to “teach them a lesson”, stack things against them or fudge dice to punish them. I just run the game as is and let them get themselves killed with overconfidence or sloppy play.

So bring on the powergamers, bring on the min-maxers, the players obsessed with “builds”, the rules lawyers and the attention hogs. Roll up whatever you want, bring your custom build PC from another campaign. Bring your custom class, custom race, your home-brewed magic items, and your high level monty haul PCs. 

Everyone is equal in death. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Organic Campaign Development in Dungeons and Dragons

Traditionally, I don’t do the “big things happening in the background that drive the campaign” kind of game. The party are adventurers, they do stuff, the environment reacts, and the campaign builds from there. I run what you might call a pure sandbox games. Sure, there are machinations in the background but for the most party the party bumps up against mid level stuff, they run afoul of the Theives Guild and then have to watch their backs, they stop a sorcerer from conjuring a demon so the sorcerer has it out for them, they get between two rival druid covens and negotiate a truce. That sort of thing. They don’t generally get involved in “world threatening” plot events.

In my home game however, I experiment a bit, as it’s my son and his friends, so I feel I have a bit more room to maneuver. I decided to link the campaign to a 'big event", but not in the traditional way (e.g. they start the campaign learning of the big world threatening event). Instead, I would have them adventure and the news would drop organically. I didn't even know when. Basically I would wait until the player's actions prompted the information to drop, however long that might take. I wouldn't contrive to make them find out, they would discover it on their own.

So in my campaign universe, there are what you could call the “pre-life” gods, gods that existed long, long before living beings appeared in the universe, perhaps even before the “big bang”. The gods that most of the players know are like the Greek gods, they are shaped (in appearance) and in general disposition to be like people, but exaggerated. The pre-life gods are horrific, in my campaign they are the Cthulhu gods, and they represent pure chaos. Let’s call them the “chaos” gods. They are slowly taking over planets, worshippers on planets channel their power and slay innocents, their souls feed the power of the chaos gods and hasten their arrival on the planet. When they arrive there, the population goes insane and the planet is given over to the forces of chaos. 

They are slowly taking over planets over billions of years. It’s a long game.

The populations of most planets don’t get to the chaos end of civilization madness stage until very far in the future, when my D&D game is set. In this case worshippers of the chaos gods have started the process of expanding on the game world of the party, Xiombal. There is an unpopulated continent there that no humanoid group has explored until recently. It is overrun with dinosaurs and “chimerical” monsters, like perytons, owlbears, chimera, etc. These are the outward manifestations of the fact that miles beneath the continent is an underworld of the chaos beasts, the creatures that work to sow madness and consume souls to hasten the arrival of the chaos gods. They create these chimerical creatures and their chaotic magic swells the ranks of the dinosaurs as well.

So in the “underdark” of Xiombal are grell (they are the leaders), mind flayers, intellect devourers, gibbering mouthers, and other assorted monsters. They stay beneath the ground, cranking out chimerical creatures in vats, but they knew one day the humanoids from the rest of the planet (aarakocra, frog-men, yuan-ti, lizard men, humans and rakasta) would arrive. So they built temples run by a priesthood of psionic cultists, they have housed these temples (that look like a cluster of tentacles stretching from the ground to the sky, about 100’ tall made of cold green stone) for 100’s of years waiting for the first arrivals. 

Our campaign started with the party joining a new settlement on the coast of the new continent to protect it and explore the wilderness. They knew nothing of any of this when they arrived, they knew nothing of the chaos gods or their priests. 

Their first encounter was with a chimera, but they wrote that one off to a sorcerer, as sorcerers can also make chimerical creatures. Then they fought a vodyani, a corrupted creature, again writing that off to sorcerers. Then they dealt with bandit raids, bandits who drove dinosaurs to stampede the Fort. At this point I had decided to have the bandits funded by a distant figure that wasn't in the campaign area. I didn't know the motivation, it was just an unformed idea. When the party beat the bandits they asked if they could see any sort of signifiers or symbols that might tell who they were working for. 

One of the PCs had heraldry as a skill, and they found documents on the bandit leader (a sorcerer) with a crest. I had the PC roll to see if they recognized the crest, and they did, so they now knew who the bandits were involved with, a distant Lord, a high ranking retired military official from a distant city state (the game world is dominated by an empire made up of city states, mostly run by lizard men). 

Lizard men are the dominant group on the planet, and aarakocra and humans were settling the new continent in an attempt to create their own home nation. The players figured that the distant lizard man noble was trying to snuff out the settlements without appearing to do so in any obvious way. It fit, it made sense, and they decided to do something about it. So they boarded a ship and sailed to the distant city-state of the Lizard man lord to confront her. They saw a seer beforehand and had their fortune told, and on the basis of that reading decided to confront the lord directly. She was the regis of the city of Reit, which means that once a week petitioners can show up to the courtyard of her castle and make requests of her.

The party showed up, told her they were there to confront her about why she was attacking their settlement (and others, they had extended a trade and diplomatic mission to a nearby settlement and discovered that they were also being raided). Now, when I use divination, and it comes out “good” then all I need to do is ensure that SOMETHING GOOD comes out of the decision, to validate the divination. I usually just wait around until something good happens and then point to it and say, “see everyone, the divination was accurate”. 

Well, the dice gods gave me my “something good”, when the party “confronted” the lord, I rolled an encounter reaction and it came up high. So she had the party summoned to her, congratulated them on making the connections and finding her (it was a good piece of detective work on their part actually), and offered them a job! Essentially, I interpreted the positive roll as her being impressed enough to want to get them to work for her, e.g. rather than have the party as enemies, bring them on as allies. 

So I needed to determine why she was interested in scaring away the settlements. Because I hadn’t gotten that far, the players had decided to go after her, which I wasn’t expecting to happen so fast, and they actually got to talk with her rather than fighting. So I needed to give her a motivation for resisting the spread of the new settlements. 

That’s when I connected my own dots. The chaos priests had been set up so when humanoids came to the new continent they could be slain and their souls harvested to hasten the arrival of the chaos gods. I decided that this particular Lord, Regis Vissa Mahr, along with a select few other Lords, had learned of the Chaos priests and their mission. So they needed to dissuade new settlements on the continent as they would provide the chaos priests with new souls to hasten the arrival of the chaos gods. 

However, they couldn’t work overtly against the new settlements, as allowing the aarakocra, humans and others to settle the new continent was a safety valve to prevent rebellion against the lizard man empire. If they told them to stop because of the threat of “chaos priests” and such it would be seen as a lie to prevent them gaining a homeland. 


So she let them in on the truth, and without expecting to the party gleaned the first piece of “lore” about the larger plot in the campaign world. They agreed to go back to the settlements with a mercenary force that she would provide to beef up the settlement’s safety and see if they can resist the chaos priests by saving the settlers' lives. They are committed to exploring the interior to find a temple of these chaos priests and try to wipe them out, hopefully allowing the settlements to continue, putting off the arrival of the chaos gods, and avoiding rebellion on the part of settlers by allowing the settlements to continue. The players suggested sending in an army, but Vissa feared  this might lead to them using dark magic, leading to MANY deaths and speeding up their project considerably. Protecting the expanding settlements and sending out a small team to try and destroy or gain information about the temples seemed the best course of action. That gave the party a role, not a “save the world by killing the big bad guy” role, but a “contribute to holding back the chaos” role. 

They were stoked to find this all out.

I love this as it was spontaneous, and it was as unexpected to me as it was to the party, I knew the lore, but I had no idea when they were going to discover it. I took the opportunity when it arose. Rather than planning this out, or attempting to “maximize” the dramatic value of a “reveal”, I instead dropped it in when it suggested itself to me in play. By doing so, but not telegraphing it or planning it, it was a genuine surprise, the players couldn’t guess it from what we had done so far, the couldn’t “see it coming” or predict that something big was about to happen due to the “needs of the story”, it surprised them as it surprised me, and that made it all the more powerful. We have been playing since January, so it took about 40 (3 hour) sessions to get to the "big reveal" of this campaign scaled threat to the players. 

So now, everything that has happened up until now takes on a new, more sinister meaning, seemingly random encounters that pointed to the threat of a sorcerer now point to a much bigger threat, a much bigger set of events. The good news is that someone has caught on to what the chaos priests are up to early on, so hopefully they can prevent too many souls from being harvested.

So far this campaign has been very different, they started with domain play, building settlements in a hostile area, moved on to politics forming alliances with nearby settlements, shifted to intrigue searching for the distant Lord who was working against them, and now have settled into investigating a “big mystery” on behalf of a distant patron.

D&D, it’s an adventure!


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Shaping Your Game Setting to Fit Your Players - The Case of the PC Assassin

My Tuesday game has gone in an unexpected direction. I run an after school D&D program for kids 10-14 years old, and this September one of them came to me with a request. He wanted to play an assassin. His father had all the 1e AD&D books and he had read them over the summer, he was fascinated with the assassin as a class and wanted to play one. That’s fine, but as he is 11 years old, I did pause for a moment. Would his parents be OK with him playing an assassin? Sure, to some extent D&D adventurers kill for gold all the time, so what’s the difference? The difference is that being a paid killer is something I’m sure most of the parents would not be keen to have their kids doing. I contacted the parents and asked them how they felt about it. They had mixed feelings, on the one hand it is "just a game" and the father was sympathetic to his son's request. But on the other hand, they weren't sure if it was appropriate for an 11 year old to play a hired hit man. 

So I suggested a compromise. The setting I use has rival factions, one of those factions is the Black Feather Assassin’s Guild, dedicated to the god of death, Omagh. The other is the temples, specifically the Temple of the god Jannak, another god of death. When I was constructing my pantheon I drew inspiration from real world pantheons, many of which have multiple gods of death. So the idea here is that factions representing different gods of death would be allied against each other, existential rivals in the game of life.

The Temple has been attempting to slowly take over the city using shadow demons that take over people and possess them. The demons are infiltrating the various noble Houses and rising in power and influence. While being possessed by a shadow demon the target’s soul is submerged, and the demon runs their body. Because of this when a demon takes someone over it is often noticeable to those closest to them, so they have stuck to lower level targets who are not as important and well known. 

They are playing the long game of taking over the city. So the priests of Jannak are in on what is happening, but otherwise their work is done in secret. However, the Black Feather Assassin’s Guild serves Omagh, and Omagh works against Jannak. So the guild discovered this plot, and has taken it upon themselves to identify those possessed by shadow demons and to send out their assassins to slay them. This serves the dual purpose of giving tribute to their god (the god of death) but also working against their opponent, the servants of Jannak. When they slay the possessed targets they release their soul to travel to the hereafter, a soul trapped in the demon controlled body.

I like doing this sort of thing, making the “bad” guys potential allies, as it makes the RP more interesting, and makes choices more complex. Now, the PC that plays an assassin is a servant of Omagh, he slays those possessed by shadow demons before they can be forced to do evil in Jannak’s name. This was more palatable to the parents than the PC being a hired assassin who would regularly have to slay innocents, those possessed by demons cannot be saved, only slain so their souls can be released, they can be kept from committing evil under shadow demon command and they can go on to their afterlife, freed. 

The player gets to have his assassin PC, his PC is imbedded in the factional conflict of the game setting, giving me free adventure hooks to hand out and keeping the party involved in the city setting’s machinations. And I don’t get angry emails from parents asking why their kid is a paid assassin slaying innocents for gold. 

Win win.

Now, last week the PC assassin was sent to slay a frog-man named Korlip Fama, he was a giant lizard breeder who was possessed by a shadow demon. The PC failed in his assassination attempt, but Korlip was slain by a city guard by mistake. Afterwards she Assassin’s Guild contacted the PC and told him that one of Korlip’s associates, a frog-man named Deek Carlig, who they believed to be demon-possessed as well, had fled the city when the PC showed up to try and slay Korlip. The guild had a lead on his location and the PC was sent to track him down and see if he would lead them to some of the movement’s leaders. 

So the PC assassin brought along the other two party members, an illusionist and a fighter/thief. They travelled into the marshes to the shantytowns to find Carlig and his associates, a group of frog men, playing dice. The PCs joined their dice game, lost a few rounds, and left. They then followed the frog-men in a boat when they left the shantytowns, using the illusionist’s power to conceal them.

They eventually caught up to Carlig and his men at an abandoned temple in the marshes, where they were meeting with a priest of Jannak to plan their next move. Four of the frog-men, Carlig and the priest, one Risik Thace, were in conversation while four of the other frog-men waited outside to watch for intruders. 

The party illusionist, bold as brass, walked out of the woods towards the frog-men outside of the temple and cast a hypnotism spell, fortunately for him they all failed their saves, so he had a chance to cast a suggestion. 

“What do you tell them?” I asked. 

“I tell them that the party and I are friends, we have worked together in the past and we are here to work with them again.”

It was an interesting ploy. The suggestion meant that the four frog-men all believed that they knew the three party members, they just couldn’t exactly remember where they had met. 

The frog-men asked them to enter the temple so they could speak to Thace. They did enter, and the priest of Jannak was instantly suspicious, who were these people and why were they here? 

The party assassin then decided to go for broke:

“I know these men (pointing to the four frog men who were under the power of the suggestion), and I followed them here to find you. The Black Feather guild slayed my family years ago, I have entered the guild and work for them now to gain their trust, but I want to bring them down. We came here to join with you against the Guild, because we know that the servants of Jannak are aligned against the servants of Omagh. We can spy on the Guild, let you know their plans, and I can help you bring them down. I can’t do it on my own, but I can help you to succeed where I’m bound to fail”

It was a brassy move, the PC was a member of the Guild, and confessing it right up front was a way to gain their trust, I added a +5% to the reaction roll for that. I added an additional 10% for charisma modifier, and another 5% as four of the frog-men vouched for the party as old associates. 

The roll came up high, so he was successful. Risak Thace accepted their proposal, but it wasn’t a slam dunk, so he suggested that one of the party members allow a shadow demon to possess them so they would have some extra power to help against the Guild.

The party illusionist responded by saying that the victims of the shadow-demons were essentially dead, as they only lived until the demon left their bodies, and until then they were puppets. They were willing to help out, but not to die. Then Thace suggested that Deek Carlig, the shadow-demon possessed frog-man, would accompany the party, to act as a liaison between them and the priest (and to keep an eye on what they were doing, Thace was no fool). 

That’s where we broke today. 

Altering the PC assassin’s situation to fit the campaign setting was a good decision, it allowed the player to play the PC he wanted, which at the end of the day is what the game is about, he wanted to be an assassin, and he got to be an assassin. But this way he was happy, his parents were happy, and I was happy, as the PC, and by extension the party, was now all up into the setting, tied to factions, and engaged in the sort of edge of your seat machinations that make for exciting factional play. The Guild is dangerous and above their pay scale, the cult of the shadow-demons is dangerous and above their pay scale too, and now the party is situated between them, playing one against the other, and trying to stay alive.

None of this would have happened if I had said, “No, you can’t do that”, or if I had barred the class from being used out of concern for how the parents would react. There are going to be some things you can’t do in your game, for whatever reason, but with some imagination and the commitment to make the game a shared experience, you can work magic. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020


Risk/Reward Mechanics and Dungeons and Dragons - Three Cases  

Image by Yuankai Li

I run a sandbox 1e AD&D game and as it’s 1e resource management is key. Also, magic is not “bought” at the magic store, it’s earned in combat, stolen from someone else who has it, or found through research and exploration (e.g. consulting a sage). My players understand this, and have adapted to it in game.

So a little while back one of my players asked if he could have an “axe that throws lightning”. I told him that he was welcome to find one or have one made. He opted for having one made, and consulted a warlock to determine the process. He started with a magic axe +2 he had picked up a few adventures ago. He was told he had to find an element to be used in enchanting the axe that was “sympathetic” to it’s function. In AD&D magic is sympathetic, e.g. the material component for a spider climb spell is a live spider, that sort of thing.

So he took the axe to a storm giant, and made a bargain. If he helped the fighter to get the sympathetic component for the axe the party would undertake a job for the giant. The giant called down lightning from the sky to strike the axe. I told the PC if the axe failed its save it was toast, but if it made the save it would be imbued with lightning and ready to be enchanted. The axe made the save, and the party took on a task for the giant. 

They travelled to a nearby spot in the valley where villagers had been disappearing, and found a druid who was commanding giant wasps to protect his grove, within the grove was a wounded gold dragon the druid was healing. The party told him that the storm giant didn’t like him killing the villagers. The druid requested that he be allowed to stay until the dragon was healed (about a week or so). They parlayed with the druid and got him to agree to leave the villagers alone if they wandered by, and went back to the giant to convey the agreement. The giant agreed, and they are now on their way back to the city to have the axe enchanted. When it is done it will essentially be the same as a wand of lightning.

The “cost” to getting the magic item here was:

Consulting the warlock/sage

Travelling to the storm giant (random encounters along the way)

Bargaining with the storm giant 

Risking the destruction of the axe

Completing the task for the giant

Payment to the warlock for enchanting the axe

And of course, they got an adventure out of it, so the “cost” here comes with fun gaming, and that’s all good.

In another case, a player asked if he could have a magic hammer that would come back to him if thrown. I gave him the same options, but he chose “stealing it from someone”. Well, my homebrew city is pretty big, so there was a chance that someone in the city could have such a weapon. 

So the first thing I did was roll to see if someone in the city did indeed have such a weapon. I gave it a 5% chance (the city is VERY big, but this was a pretty specific request), and rolled an 3, so someone did! But of course I didn’t tell the player that piece of information, they had to do the legwork. 

So the player decided his PC would go to a sage and see if they could help him. He took a bit of time finding a sage with a specialization in supernatural and unusual, and then he paid him to do some research to find out if there was a hammer of this kind anywhere accessible. I rolled for that, and it did not come up. So the first sage was a bust. He went to two more sages and the same thing, none of them knew of the possible location of a hammer of this kind. So sages were a dead end.

The PC in question is a thief, and a member of the guild, so he went to the guild and asked them for help. He agreed to a service to “pay back”  the guild for any information they might have. I rolled to see if they knew about such a weapon, I gave that a higher chance, as the guild in my homebrew city focuses on theft of high profile items from powerful city personages, its essentially a form of public humiliation to have a powerful item stolen from you. 

So I gave it a 20% chance, and that came up! So they did know of someone who had a hammer of the kind he wanted, and they gave him the information. As it happens, the theft was botched and the thief was captured, we will see how that turns out, but again, there were costs to the process of finding a magic item:

Finding, visiting and paying sages (time and gold)

Agreeing to a job for the guild to pay for information

Going to the location of the item and stealing it from a secure location

The idea was the same in both cases, magic items are powerful, and you can’t just “buy” them, but if you are willing to do the legwork and face real risks, the rewards can be yours!

In my Friday game I had another variation on this theme. My group was about to get involved in a fight. They had befriended some rebels who were ousted from a local Duchy as it had been taken over. The Duchy had been at war for two years, to win the war they brought in a significant number of mercenary soldiers, when the war was over and they won one of the Duke’s commanders staged a coup with the mercenaries and took over the Duchy. They slayed the Duke and his family, and all those loyal to him. 

The rebels had fled the Duchy and were hiding in the valley of the storm giant. The giant liked the rebels and let it be known they were under his protection while in the valley. The PCs had a RP encounter with the rebels and liked them, and the rebels asked them to help out by aiding them in a raid they were about to make. The party would help them bloody the nose of one of the new Duke’s elite units, and this would help inspire the resistance.

So one of my players asked me if there was any way to get an advantage in the upcoming fight. Normally to do this sort of thing they would have to follow steps like those I outlined above. But they wanted to have the fight soon, and I didn’t want to delay them for the sessions necessary to do the legwork necessary to get whatever advantage they were going to get. 

So I came up with a shortcut. 

I created a druid who lived in the marshes near the valley. The druid was a true neutral, in that he did not take sides with any local power struggles, but he would aid or harm travellers based on divination. In essence, if you wanted help you went to the druid, he would do a tarot card reading and based on the result would either aid you or harm you. If the reading was positive, he would offer to cast a spell to help you out, if the reading was negative, there was a carrion crawler in his company who would paralyze the party, and the druid would feed them to the crawler. Anyone who the crawler did not eat the druid would toss into the marshes to feed the crocs. 

So the leader of the rebels told the party of the druid, they weren’t willing to go to the druid as if things went badly that would end the resistance, but if the party wanted an advantage, the druid would either help or harm them. I made it clear to the players that the druid’s reading would help or harm them, and that it was beyond their control. 

So they had a conversation, did they want to risk a significant negative consequence for the possibility of a significant advantage in the game. Risk/reward is the bread and butter of D&D, but in this case it was compacted. Rather than an extended process of research and travels to get what they wanted, they could get an advantage immediately, but they would face an immediate risk. Compacting the process like this was like rolling the dice, it could help you out or damn you, but the choice was yours. 

They spent about 20 minutes discussing this, going back and forth between the view that they should go to the fight without the help of the druid, as if things went bad on the reading they would be at a disadvantage, and the view that any advantage was worth the risk.

I love conversations like these, players weighing the risks and rewards of a course of action when it is entirely up to them if they want to take the risk. Eventually they decided to go and see the druid. 

When they found him, he had built up a roaring 10’ diameter fire, seen for miles, and he was throwing bunches of different flowers onto the flames while praying and chanting, every bunch that hit released a scent into the air, and the air on the way to the fireside was rich with wild smells. He was communing with nature.  

When they arrived, the druid, Micerine Daj, introduced himself, then asked them to sit, showing them low grass mats to sit upon. He pointed at a small table with food, and asked if he could play a song. They say yes, so he played his pipes for a time. Unbeknownst to the party the pipes were magical, and anyone who heard them was enchanted such that if they attacked the player of the pipes, the player would be under a sanctuary spell with respect to their attacks. 

They told him what their task was, and asked for a reading. He then drew out his tarot and drew three cards. One card was Immediate Future, one was Intention, and the third was Challenge. I had decided the following, with an inverted card being a negative reading, and a card right side up was a positive reading. Because the orientation of the cards was a factor, I took the deck and laid out the cards in a mass on the table, then put the deck back together in such a way that some cards would be right side up, some upside down.

If two or three of the cards came up reversed then the druid would have the carrion crawler attack (the seats were arranged so the crawler was hidden in the foliage behind them). If two were positive the druid would cast a minor spell for them. If three were positive then he would cast a major spell for them.

So I drew the three cards and interpreted them according to their mission and their placement as detailed above. The first card was drawn, right side up, the ten of swords. That was for “immediate future”, so that was an easy read. 

“Micerine Daj spoke in a low, plain voice, betraying no emotion at the card he flipped, ‘a ten of swords, your immediate future has violent conflict with a large number of armed opponents.”

There was chatter amongst the players at this point, they were wondering if they were going to be able to achieve their goals without a direct fight (they had been discussing some spell related options for that, or the possibility of taking out the leader of the enemy’s unit to get the soldiers to surrender), they weren’t sure what the card implied for that. I let them speculate amongst themselves, players will figure out how to make the reading make sense for you, just let them riff on it for a while. 

The second card was drawn, again right side up. This time it was the Hierophant, this was for the category of “Intentions”. That one was a bit harder, but I was inspired,

“The druid raised an eyebrow at the card, mused for a moment, then spoke, ‘The Hierophant sees the future, in the position of ‘Intention” it suggests that you are seeking to change the future with your actions. You will be successful in this.”

The key to prognostication is not to be TOO specific, even if they failed completely they would “change the future” in some way, so this works as an interpretation. The party again chatted a bit about this, arguing over whether this meant they would win, or if their success could involve some of them dying or not. I kept silent and let them speculate.

Then the third card was drawn, also right side up!

“Micerine Daj closed his eyes and prayed, humming ancient words that mean nothing to you, and turned over the last card, ‘It is the Tower, in the Challenge position this indicates that your primary challenge in this task is a fortified opponent, so the biggest challenge in your task will be armor, or a fortification like a castle’”

They burst out into conversation about this one too. Now that they knew that their biggest challenge would be armored opponents or opponents in a fortified position, they started to talk about what spells they had that would ignore or at least not be hindered by armor or fortification. 

The important part for role play purposes was that that the cards all “fit” the future situation, they were going to fight an elite unit of the new Duke’s soldiers, they were doing it to try and enact change (inspire the rebellion) and they would be dealing with armored knights. 

For game purposes, they had taken the risk, rolled the dice (or in this case flipped the cards) and they won. So they got the reward immediately, without having to take several sessions to get it. I don’t do this sort of thing all the time, compressing the process like this is tempting, and can lead to hand waving the challenges just to move things forward. But every once in a while this sort of approach is both atmospheric and fun.

So the last part of the process was to decide what spell the druid would cast for them. He offered them three choices, he could come with them and cast a heat metal spell on their armored opponents, he could cast a hallucinatory terrain spell at an important juncture to ambush the soldiers they would be fighting. Or he could cast an animal summoning spell and then use speak with animals to get the beasts to help the PCs with their fight (two of the PCs could speak with animals as well, to direct them).

They ruled out the first two as they didn’t want the druid to come with them, I think they didn’t trust him at this point, or at least didn’t want to risk a true neutral possibly turning against them. So they went for the animal summoning. Micerine could cast this spell two times per day, so he did so, and summoned 16 giant spiders to his side (each casting gets 8 animals, the druid gets to pick, so to make it fair I rolled on the wandering monster tables in the back of the DMG for subtropical climates and got giant spiders).

Next session they are going to have their fight.

On one side:

The party (a monk/warlock, a ranger, a fighter, and a priest), 25 rebel fighters (0-level mercenaries, chainmail, shield, longsword and crossbow) and their leader (a 5/5 fighter/priest of Poseidon), all riding giant lizards, which are slow but strong, and 16 giant spiders. 

On the other:

The elite “Hammer squad” of the new duke, Duke Ragim Brokkasam the Mighty, 20 plate mail clad soldiers (0-level) armed with lucerne hammers that double as lances (each one has a foot long spike at the top), their leader, Grem Shathross, a 5th level fighter, and one squealer, a monster that the Duke had captured and enslaved, it wears a magical collar that makes it subservient to anyone wearing the crest of the Duchy (a black tiger on a red background). 

Squealers are 10 HD monsters that are EXTREMELY DEADLY. The catch here is that the “elite unit” has no missile weapons, so they will send in the squealer to engage the party then charge in with their hammer lances on armored horses. The squad is faster on the horses, and they are armored, but the horses are weaker than the giant lizards.

It should be epic, and the party is primed for their first set piece battle with soldiers. Next Friday can’t come soon enough. 

In all three cases there was risk, resource management and reward, but in the last case I compressed this into a single encounter that delivered the same formula, but without the wait. I wouldn’t recommend doing this often, but every once in a while it is a flavorful way to get the risk/reward element into the game in a shorter period of time.

Game on!

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