Friday, December 27, 2019

Magic Users and Tactical Dominance in D&D

I read a few threads this week on D&D Twitter discussing how wizards dominated 5e games, there was a lot of talk about game design involved in this as well. The idea being that the game has been built around magic-use as the primary or best way to succeed at the game. Wizards can “replace” other classes by duplicating their abilities, and that the game isn’t as challenging for powerful wizards.
I run 1e with house rules, but the magic system I run more or less as written. I think it’s fantastic at balancing the power of magic-users against overall game challenge. 1e is not thought of in this context as many have played it and also found that magic-users can dominate the game. I’ve been running 1e for about 35 years off and on and magic-users do not dominate our game at all. I suspect this is due to the fact that most people who play 1e house rule the magic system a lot. I house rule a lot of things in 1e, but not the magic system. 
I thought it would be useful to outline the 1e system more or less BTB, not necessarily to get anyone else to use it, but rather to show how it works so you might be able to pinch individual elements from the system to help restrict the power of wizards in your game. 
These rules form the core of the power/restriction dynamic that makes the 1e magic system work with magic-users.
1. Magic Users in Combat - One balancing factor is that magic-users have bad HP, AC, THACO and weapon choice, so they are comparatively at risk in combat. This complicates their ability to dominate the game as they must preserve their lives while still casting powerful spells, the process of casting being very risky. This will often limit spellcasting options as well, for example on line of fire spells, or on spells with short ranges. Survival at lower levels requires a lot of cooperation from fellow party members. 
2. Restrictions on the Variety of Spells That a Magic-User Will Have- D&D has a host of restrictions that ensure that the magic-user does not have access to all the listed spells in the book and cannot select the majority of their spells. This is a significant check on their power. The list is long a. Chance “to know” each listed spell, linked to intelligence. If you don’t know a spell you can only cast it from a scroll, never memorize and cast it
b. Maximum number of spells per level, linked to intelligence. Once you have hit your maximum you cannot know any further listed spells you find c. Randomization of spell allocation. With rare exception, most spells available to the magic-user are randomly determined, which significantly restricts the power and utility of the magic-user.
d. It is possible to cast a spell that is above your regular maximum spell level possible to cast, but only from a scroll, and there is a failure percentage and a reverse/harmful percentage for the casting. e. Scroll spells turn up 15% of the time in regular random treasure allocation, and magic-user spells turn up on 63% of scrolls. f. The number of spells you can cast per day is restricted, so the magic-user must pick what spells they memorize for the day, so a needed spell may not be available g. When spells are cast they are forgotten and must be rememorized. Rest and rememorization times increase with higher level spells, and high level MU’s can take up most of a day resting and rememorizing spells, during which time they need to be protected. So higher level magic-users will often find themselves unable to cast all of their listed spells. 
All of these factors mean that a magic-user in 1e will not have access to the majority of listed spells, nor will they have influence over what spells they find, nor can they be guaranteed to know what spells they find, or have them memorized when needed. This means that the power of the magic-user in game, which is linked to their spell selection, is heavily restricted. 
3. Restrictions on Efficacy of Spells - In addition to restrictions on what spells they will have, magic-users have restrictions on the efficacy of the spells they do have. a. All spells have one or more of verbal (spoken), somatic (motions or actions), and material (objects) components. Material components can be rare and expensive, they run out, they can be destroyed and they are a challenge to track and acquire at higher levels. Verbal spells cannot be cast when under a silence spell, or while gagged or otherwise kept from speaking. Spells with a somatic component cannot be cast if the caster is restrained in any way.   b. Interruption of spells. When spells are cast it is required for the magic user to stand absolutely still while reciting the verbal components, performing the somatic components, using the material components, etc. The slightest disturbance can spoil the spell, in game terms this means that in combat spells can be interrupted by any successful attack against the magic user, no matter how much damage it does. Note that in BTB 1e initiative, if the magic user wins initiative while casting a spell they can still have that spell interrupted, as it may take so long to cast that the opponent’s attack comes first. This is not the case for weapon attacks, where if you win initiative you win initiative. Also, longer duration spells take longer to cast, and thus are more likely to be interrupted.  c. There are saving throws, magic resistance, immunities to certain spells (e.g. sleep,charm), etc. Even though you manage the heroic feat of casting that spell without interruption, there is the possibility that saving throws can either negate the spell entirely, or reduce the impact of the spell d. D&D spells are not “balanced” on the overall, yes, they do generally increase in power with level, but there are always lower level spells that are more powerful than higher level spells, and spells within any given level that are far more powerful than other spells of that level. This magnifies the impact of random allocation of spells, as it is possible to get the least powerful spells of any particular level in your allocation. 
Many 1e DM’s drop or change these restrictions, they drop the min or max spells per level, or to know percentages, they assign spells without any randomization, they increase the number of spells available, waive material component restrictions or fiddle with spell interruption mechanics or initiative.  
I get the reasoning behind all of these changes, and I can see why they would soothe some frustrations with the limitations of the system. However, the restrictions were placed their for a reason. Gygax understood full well the significant impact magic could have on the game and built these restrictions to keep magic-users from obtaining tactical dominance of the game. 
So if you are finding wizards are dominating your game to its detriment, you might want to consider borrowing some elements from this system, whatever elements are appropriate to the system you are currently using.
As an aside, run this system more or less as written and you get a few interesting consequences:

1. As a rule magic-users do not dominate the game 
2. Magic-users become a lot more varied with random spell allocation, helping to differentiate characters and NPCs
3. Combat with opposing magic-users becomes more tactically opaque as spells are randomized, it is harder to know what spells your opponent will have
4. Tactical play is required for all players to increase the likelihood of successful spell casting 5. Resource management is required by the party to obtain necessary spell components 6. Managing spells becomes an adventure hook as components must be secured and adventures are often planned around the availability or acquisition of spells

These are all positives for the gaming experience, and reasons to consider using these rules if you run a 1e game. If you run a different edition of D&D or a similar game, some of these restrictions might help take the bite out of wizards in your game.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons and Player Versus Player Games

Sometimes Twitter captures the evenescence of TTRPG discourse and things fall into place for me. This happened today when I read the following two tweets about D&D and player versus player or "PvP" play.

The argument is that D&D is designed for monster killing and stealing of stuff, so if you want to run a game with PvP elements, e.g. players working against each other, the only tool you really get from the rules is violence and character death. So it will either give you no guidance or make it worse, e.g. lead to character deaths and acrimony between players. Normally I would write this sort of thing off to different play styles, but the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. There was something fundamental off about this take, and I think I’ve figured out what it is.

To get there, I will have to divert through my game. I run a home game for 9 players, age 16. They have been playing together for 6 years. They are all gamers, highly competitive, and there are several active rivalries between individuals within the group. They are all friends, but they love beating each other, competing against each other, in the context of the game. This means that a non-trivial amount of our play is directed towards players opposing other players goals. 
Now, we’ve been playing more or less bimonthly for 6 years, as well as playing 5 one week long summer games, I’d say we’ve conservatively logged about 400 hours at the table in 6 years. That’s with the same group of players and three consecutive runs of PC parties. So my game has supported over 400 hours of group play, a significant portion of which has been PvP, certain players working directly against other players. 
So I would strongly disagree that D&D doesn’t support this kind of play, or that the rules work against it. Indeed, I would argue that, with certain caveats, it supports this kind of play, and does so quite well, as it has for quite a while for us. I play 1e AD&D, so I can’t speak for 5e, but with that in mind, I want to say a few words about how this works and why it works.   
AD&D is exceptionally good at facilitating non-lethal opposition between players as it creates a vibrant, open ended game world, and this provides many vectors for PvP play beyond simple direct violence between players. PvP play is defined here as play where players work against the goals or actions of other players, where players compete with each other as well as with the environment, monsters, NPCs, etc. 
Importantly, if all the PvP you have seen is direct PC on PC violence, that’s on the group and their play style, not the game design. 
Older edition D&D was meant to be emergent, rather than mapping out the whole world and everything in it, you are explicitly told to develop a small area of the game world and expand from there. The players were meant to explore the world and as they did so their actions would cause reactions, and so would a campaign emerge. 
Over time this leads to a rich, layered history of events that informs player decision making, goals and the responses of the game world to their further actions. If you read the 1e DMG for example, Gygax makes it clear that the goal of a campaign is to create these rich, layered, historically situated experiences. Your campaign may start as a game where life is cheap and you “kill all the monsters, and take their stuff”, but if that’s where it stays that’s on you, not the game design. 
So what are some of these vectors for players to work against other players that are not strictly based in violence against each other? My home campaign is rife with them. Here are my top 10 based on our experience, I'm sure other groups could add to these.

Competing for Leadership and Character Goals - if you run a railroady game where there is only one course of action possible to fulfill the adventure, then there often isn’t room for conflict outside of violence. However, an open ended game allows PCs to go wherever they want and do whatever they want. 1e is built on that sort of open ended framework. The rules call for you to design the bare minimum to start, and to expand with the PCs as they explore the world. In this context, player versus player gaming style can be satisfied as one player convinces the group to pursue their plans rather than their rivals, or holds back important resources that would allow other goals to be pursued. Sometimes one player becomes the leader of the group, often in opposition to specific players who also want that role.  I’ve seen this happen many times, where the party magic-user won’t cast a spell that would help to achieve another PC’s goals, or the party fighter refuses to engage an enemy or take a risk associated with another PC’s desired goals. PC class goals can also conflict between players, one PC might be seeking to obtain a special magic item that helps out their class (e.g. a paladin’s holy sword) where another wants to secure components for powerful spells. The idea that there is always one goal that the party is working towards together is somewhat quaint but not implied by or necessitated by the rules. 

Competing for Loot - D&D ascribes a significant amount of XP to loot, so if you get to the loot first, or negotiate a higher share, you can work against others in a competitive fashion. Players compete against each other to level up faster and gain new abilities, competencies, etc, faster than other players. The rules specifically state that it is best to let the players decide how to split loot, so this leaves a venue for players to negotiate and forge alliances with others to claim more of the loot. My players do this all the time, making their case as to why they should get X or Y amount of the gold based on what they did, or enlisting other players to support them in getting more loot than another player they are in competition with. I’ve had players pocket gold without telling other players as well.
Competing over Achievements - solving puzzles, defeating traps, etc. This is another aspect of OSR style play that is lost to a degree on newer players. The focus on RP and character backgrounds is part of the “challenge the character, not the player”  aspect of the current approach. 1e challenges the player, and this means that being the PC to solve a puzzle, determine the BBG’s plan or beat a trap (or disarm it), get’s to have it’s own cachet for competitive purposes. My players will often make decisions that are harmful to their PC to get the chance to be the one to beat a trap/puzzle, etc Competing through Tactics - yes, the game suggests you divide the XP equally amongst every PC that contributes for monsters defeated, but competitive players work against each other to be the one to deal the “decisive blow” or cast the “key spell” that ends an encounter. Sometimes they all contribute more or less equally, but they often take great personal risk to be the one to do something decisive in a fight, or to figure out something that gives the group a significant tactical advantage.  Competition through Class Expression - 1e encourages Thieves to join guilds, for Magic-users to seek out patrons, for clerics to find temples, that sort of thing. Players work to secure more resources and connections so they can achieve goals that other players cannot. Sometimes the reward is being the one with the connection that allows the party to achieve a goal it otherwise could not. Competition through Alliances - 1e is an explicitly unbalanced game, you are expected to encounter things beyond your weight class. If you use the random encounter tables and the suggested dungeon denizens you will regularly face things that are hard to beat. As a result, parties frequently have to form alliances to get access to the resources or power needed to survive. PCs can compete to be the ones to access those resources. The PC who negotiates with the local mage to get the crucial spell components, the PC that gains the trust of the sergeant at arms to gain them access to the mayor’s home, etc. 1e charisma rules also support this, a PC with a high charisma can gain advantage in negotiations through parley for example.  Competition through Resources - 1e AD&D has explicit rules for henchmen loyalty and upper level followers, my players compete using these as well. Henchmen mean that you are more likely to survive encounters, and to be decisive within them. Magic-users and thieves hire henchmen, fighters subdue dragons, priests gain acolytes. There is often direct competition between individual players over who can get the “best” henchmen/animal companions, etc. Competition through high level Domain Play - baked into the rules of 1e are mechanisms for high level players to gain followers and construct keeps, create guilds, start temples, etc. I’ve played in several games where the players competed with respect to these goals, and sometimes directly against each other. In one particular case on PC who was a thief forming his guild would send out agents to stir up the monsters in the forests around the party fighter’s keep, just to keep him on his toes
Competition for NPC Favor/enmity - D&D also assumes the game world is populated by powerful NPCs that the party can either work for or against. Modules often have this sort of thing baked into them. I’ve watched my group work against each other to be the one “favored” by the party’s NPC Patron, or to be the one that tweaks the nose of the party’s NPC antagonist the most. The party can have a reputation, but individuals often compete to be the one with the most badass reputation. Competition for Magic Items - this is one of the biggest sources of player versus player competition, and the one I have most often seen lead to PvP play in a more direct fashion. My players are very competitive and will work against each other to gain special magic items, the prestige of having a powerful item, and the advantages it brings, is often a source of competition between players.

All of these are examples of places where PvP play can and has been explored within our AD&D game, and none of these has led to direct player on player violence. They are vectors for players to work against each other’s interests, sometimes to the party’s benefit, sometimes to their detriment. 

One of the reasons I think they work as well as they do is that the rules are so lethal that actual combat between players is short lived and deadly, which acts as a deterrent against the more egregious kinds of PvP. In many cases PvP that degenerates into gross physical conflict ends a campaign for this reason. This is why people often avoid it, because they have had this sort of experience or heard of it.

That can happen. But equally what can happen is that individual groups compete with each other over party direction or goals, XP, loot, achievements, tactics, class goals, alliances, resources, domain play, NPC favor/enmity and magic items. D&D sustains and supports all of these forms of player versus player competitive play elements. 

I see these all as “within the rules”, as the competitive behavior is directed towards in-game goals that are supported mechanically in the rules. Yes, there are no explicit social negotiation rules between PCs, nor are there explicit rules for how to handle non-violent conflict other than encounter reaction rules, but the goals of that conflict are encoded in the rules, leaving the players and DM to work it out. 

The fact that my players have been competing against each other for 6 years worth of regular play without any direct player on player violence suggests that the game can support PvP play without it. 

The last objection to consider is whether or not the lack of rules for “social disputes” in the game means that this is all irrelevant, e.g. two players competing to be the one to outsmart the dragon doesn’t count as PvP play as there is no objective, neutral way to evaluate who made the biggest contribution to its defeat or who “won” the social challenge between them for prestige or renknown. 

This tendency, to want explicit rules to quantify the competition to make it possible to “support” PvP play is the root of the claims above, the idea that D&D doesn’t give you any guidance for how to support PvP play in your game. However, this is a mistaken view. The play group itself sorts out the “winners” and “losers” in PvP play. In the case of direct player on player violence the evaluation is obvious, one player dies, the other lives. 

In the examples I have outlined above, sometimes the players themselves set up the criteria for deciding who has “won” the competition, e.g. who has set the goals for the party, who has the “coolest” magic item, that sort of thing. In other cases like loot or leveling, the “victor” is obvious based on levels achieved or amount of loot secured.

It is my suspicion that people who view competitive PvP play as inherently violent in D&D do so as they are running a D&D game, or have only played in a D&D game, where violence is the primary vehicle to achieve in-game goals. 1e as written is designed to reward mechanisms other than direct violence, in fact the XP structure and unbalanced nature of the opponents in the game necessitate non-violent solutions. 

The other big factor I think is the party level that has been achieved, for a few reasons. First, the longer your campaign lasts the more relationships, commitments, alliances, and enmities are formed, and thus the more possible vectors for competition between individual players with respect to these relationships and goals.

Second, the higher level D&D players get, the more options are available to them as characters. A low level party may not have many options other than direct violence for PvP play. However, a mid-level spell caster or thief has a lot of options for non-violent yet competitive play between players, more opportunities to leave a competitor in the lurch during combat, and generally to wreak havoc without death. 

I’m assuming here that there are other groups who play competitively, and who do so without various members of the party slaughtering each other. 1e AD&D has supported this play style for us for years, so I’m sure it’s compatible with it, and I am curious to see if it is a common way to play.

Monday, November 18, 2019


TTRPG Twitter has "waves" of discussion based on the "idea of the week", so to speak.

The lastest is "Does system matter?"

The problem with Twitter, and I think many people kind of know it, is that to get attention you need to say things that are extreme and exaggerated.

So for example, someone will say "system doesn't matter at all", because they want to get people to stop treating system as if it mattered the most.

I think this is a challenging rhetorical strategy, because it leads to people pointing out that system matters in some ways, so this can't be true. And then lots of angry Tweets. Twitter is too rough a tool for a nuanced discussion, so I've decided to say something here.

Does System Matter?
System matters in a few ways:
1. Different systems produce different general outcomes (e.g. a 2d6 skill mechanic will produce different results than a "roll over ability score with d20" mechanic)
2. Different systems produce different experiences (e.g. a system with criticals and feats will involve the player in different ways)
3. Different systems codify different types of play (e.g. a game with extensive mechanics for social interaction will lead to more structured social interaction than one that has fewer rules)

These are pretty obvious. They have some nuances though.

For 1., this can be significant, for example, I use WvrsAC modifiers and weapon speeds with individual initiative in my game, combat progresses very differently in this sort of game than in one with group initiative and fewer modifiers.
Another example is stat creep, in games that use cumulative bonuses, the number you use and their frequency can make for the difference between a game where the players rarely succeed to one where they rarely fail.

For 2., system mechanics make a huge difference, one of the things that leads to player boredom in combat is that a paucity of mechanics for combat in some games means that your players, in a 6 person game, are each sitting through 5 other players doing their thing before they get to go again. 

That impacts the at the table played experience of the game.

For 3., "what to codify" is an important question, as codified actions will be played differently (with pauses to roll for results, and different strategies than uncodified play) at the table. For example, D&D has largely uncodified social interactions, play a game with codified social interactions and you will see how differently they feel.

However, system isn't all that matters, nor even the most important thing, for a few reasons.

A. You can swap *some* mechanics out and the game can feel similar - e.g. for those rolls the DM does in private, e.g. success of Hide in Shadows, if you substituted a 2d6 skill check mechanic for a %based roll your players wouldn't know
B. You can drop some mechanics entirely and the game can feel similar - e.g. you could just narrate whether or not player attacks hit without rolling, and the game can feel exactly the same.
C. You make up rulings on the spot for things that aren't covered by the rules, and these arbitrary, non-playtested and not thought through ideas often work perfectly well, so the mechanics aren't THAT important
D. In TTRPGs, due to their open ended nature, you spend a lot of time "playing" the game when there are no explicit rules governing what you do. For some commentators this means you "aren't really playing the game" as a result. I don't agree with this, I think TTRPGs are examples of games where a non-trivial amount of play is not covered in the rules. In 1e AD&D this is made explicit as a design feature, it is expected that the gaming process will exceed the rules.
E. People have been home brewing TTRPG since their beginning, and all of them have had at least some successful gaming, if "system mattered" so much then the systems wouldn't be so tolerant to tinkering.

To me, these features mean that system is important, but not the most important thing about the game.

And this doesn't mean that "system doesn't matter", or that "system matters the most", I think it suggests that "system matters more or less depending on the style of play you favor".

System and Game Design
Now some thoughts about how all this plugs into game design.

I have seen a lot of takes on this subject recently, the most coherent and interesting so far has been this:

yak-hak has blogged on the idea that we have replaced "the DM is god" with "the Dsigner is god", and as such we are forgetting that "the Table is god", as in, system doesn't matter so much, it's how the game gets played at the table by the unique combination of players and game referee that determines the play experience

The concern here seems to be that game designers don't take into account that the game will not play "as written", so they design it with the assumption that it will be played as written, or worse that it HAS to be played as written.

I can't speak for 5e, or for Vampire, but I can speak for AD&D, and the game designers of AD&D (and earlier editions) knew that the game wouldn't survive engagement with the players unscathed or as written, and they built this into their design of the game.

I would go so far to suggest that the OSR is an example of players focusing on just these table centric aspects of old school gaming.

In short, "table centric" design is not new. To address this I will go through the points yak-hak brings up that 'table centric" design uses and see how they map on to the early editions of the game. I will focus on 1e only because that is the edition I am most familiar with.

Leave Spaces
e.g. don't "overdefine" or "map it all out"

It is stated explicitly in 1e and advised often in the OSR that you start small (e.g. a village and the woods first, then create the world as the players explore) rather than creating everything at once.
It is also the case that 1e was explicitly designed with the "rulings over rules" philosophy, that was absorbed in the OSR as well. Gygax himself treated rules very loosely, and made up stuff on the spot when he liked. The main thrust to "standardize" the rules was imposed from the outside to make it possible to run convention games in a coherent and fair way. It was not an intended design feature.

Enabling Fiction
A RPG should "providing fictional material - game text, character/NPC creation procedures, cool and dynamic equipments or ways of navigating space, and tools for creating scenarios and adventures." All OSR early edition games I have played have these features.

Now, you might say that early edition D&D didn't "undermine cliche's", because it is now the cliche, it has been around for long enough that it's tropes are the cliche for everyone. But this is a narrow, unhistorical view. D&D was a pastiche from the beginning, so for example, there are some Tolkien elements in D&D, but the non-Tolkien elements FAR outweigh them.

D&D is a pulp fantasy mash-up, it encompassed a wide range of horror, Western, sci-fi and fantasy tropes and mashed them all together, much like comic books. So from the beginning D&D was challenging cliche's, players in the Blackmoor campaign were dealing with alien frogs, that is not a fantasy cliche.

Enable Homebrew Rulings
yak-hack recommends using intuitive descriptors and a way to develop expertise. That's fine, but there are other ways to do this that work as well. 1e for example encourages rules over rulings, so when you have a need to do something that isn't covered in the rules you are expected to make something up. 

It's actually quite odd to suggest that "enabling homebrew rulings" is somehow a new idea. EVERONE HOUSE RULES TTRPGs, they have to, as the game systems can't cover every possibility, so clearly they have been enabled by the design. If the design didn't enable it, you'd think that there would be more people who play with no house rules. 

If the idea is to provide a small set of generic mechanics and let the players decide how to apply them I can see that working, for example, Stars Without Numbers does this with their 2d6 mechanic, d20 to hit rolls and starship combat rules, they define a few mechanics for you then explicitly say that you can model new ones on the existing mechanic.

Giving lists of existing skills doesn't have to lead to us, "... presenting the world as a set of mechanical tasks" instead of as a "real, dynamic place", it can prime the players for ideas, and creates some structure for those players who aren't interested in that kind of freedom. There are multiple kinds of players in TTRPGs, a design philosophy that gives some mechanical rules and encourages improvisation and kit-bashing, is just as functional and open to creative play as one that leaves most of this to the players. 

Note I'm not suggesting that a game that handled this spontanously and cooperatively is a bad idea, it could work and work well, I'm objecting to the idea that existing games didn't address these concerns in different ways.

The example given here, using a specific mechanic in different ways, is another feature of 1e and OSR games that already exists, in the list given 1,2 and 4 are explicit in 1e, 3 may be as well but I can't remember. There is also the example of the "to hit" tables and THACO, using thieving percentages for alternate applications (not recommened in the rules, but recommended in the OSR and explicit in retroclones) and used in various in game mechanics like hitting AC 8 to disarm or sufficiently high natural to hit rolls producing stunning effects for monks

Be the Spice
If 1e is anything, it's descriptively rich and flavourful. I think OSR games have tons of spice in their aesthetics and framing.

Be the Border
I agree with all of this, you spend a lot of time playing RPGs in the "spaces in between" the game mechanics. Every OSR game I have played or heard of is like this, every game I've played is like this too, so clearly this is not a new feature of game design, it is an explicit part of old edition game design. The books state this explicitly, that you will find the rules don't cover everything, nor are they intended to. 

Creating Tools
"Create a diverse set of tools or templates that help the table make sense of and resolve things" - this again is exactly what 1e does, it provides a wide variety of tools for play and players use SOME of them. Many rules in older edition games are presented as optional for this reason. Optional psionics rules, optional unarmed combat rules, optional rules for artifacts and relics, optional rules for HP damage reporting, etc.

Whence the OSR?
So why do we need a new term and new focus for game design? All I can figure is that 5e is different than old-school editions, or that there is a vocal minority of current game designers suggesting that we can ignore how the table operates and design our games with the expectation of rigid adherence to the rules. If so, that's too bad.

I'm all for these design principles, I think they are mature and smart and address the weird interstitial space that emerges in TTRPGs at the table. There really is something interesting and unique to emergent TTRPG play, and these principles are a big part of that. 

I'm happy to call this set of ideas "table centric" game design, and I would argue that it was a feature of early edition games as well, and is part of the basic principles of the OSR.

Actually, I would go further and suggest that it's fundamental to the OSR, and that should be pretty obvious. Old edition D&D is one of the most hackable, kit-bashable games in existence. The existence of over 100 retroclones of D&D suggests that old school games were DESIGNED to be hacked and changed based on each group that played them. 

I would also add that many groups use a rough consensus process to enable new rules in the game beyond what is written in the books. In my game any new rule is used for a while and if the players don't like it we ditch it. I may be the one to most often propose new rules, but they are evaluated by all of us. I'm fairly sure that we are not the only gaming group that works this way.

I think this design adaptability has been proven over the years by the extensiveness of house ruling, something that EGG talks about in the 1e DMG written in the 1970's, Gygax knew that the rules barely contained play, that's why he spends so much time talking about how the players will test the rules in your game. 

You may not approve of his advice, which was to play the game in an adversarial way and challenge the players, not their characters, but he was clearly aware that the game was not going to be played exactly as written, and he encouraged creative responses to this fact. Beyond the rule books this can be seen in the modules he wrote, he repeatedly says that DM's are to tailor the modules to their campaign settings, and uses an economy of presentation, early modules were very short, that suggests a lot of DM input into the game. 

In short, system has always mattered, but it has never been the most important thing, and if you are keen on "table centric" design, you should check out the OSR.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Have at Them!

Image by Wiggers123 at DeviantArt

Combat, for better or for worse, is a central aspect of D&D. I’ve heard good and bad things about the system over the years, but really, even the best made, most well thought out system will become somewhat routine upon repetition. 

So here are some suggestions on how to make your D&D combat more exciting. I’m keeping this edition neutral, so there may be some suggestions that are addressed by your preferred edition of D&D (or version of whatever non-D&D system you are playing), and there may be some that don’t apply.

The Problem
The root of the problem is twofold: 

  • sufficient repetition makes all but the most robust systems seem routine

  • the time a player spends deciding on and executing their actions during combat is time that other players are waiting for their action

The latter issue is a big deal with larger groups. One of my regular groups is rocking 8 players, so that’s 7 player’s worth of decision making and action execution that every individual player has to wait through between their actions.

That’s a decent amount of table time.

Here are some features that I think will make combat more interesting for your players, both in terms of combat mechanics and giving them things to do while waiting for their action. 

The key observation here is that, in our desire to streamline combat, we often take away so many features that “slow things down” that players are left with too few things to do. In actuality, even with a smaller group (say three players) you have to wait on average twice as long between actions as you do to complete your action. 

So really, the ideal system should have enough bells and whistles to give a range of choices, but not so many bells and whistles that you don’t have simple options you can use without a lot of choice beforehand when you want them. 

Any good combat system should also give you things to do between combat actions that are not necessarily combat, as that waiting period can be lengthy. Say it takes a minute to resolve a combat action, that’s pretty fast. Even then, it will be at minimum a 7 minute wait between actions for a player in an 8 player game. 

So the idea is to do two things, one, create more interest in the existing combat, and find things combat related or game related to do in your “down time”, to avoid having players get so distracted they fall out of the game and either get bored or start doing something else.

And just to be clear, there are lots of ways to achieve these results, I will discuss some solutions I’ve used, but they aren’t exclusive or “best”, just what has worked for me. And of course, being an “engaging”, entertaining DM is important, but even if you are engaging and entertaining there will be times when you are focused on one player to the exclusion of others. 

Engaging the Players in Combat
A. Making Existing Combat More Interesting
1. Give players reasons to listen to the details of combat. 
2. Put mechanics in front of them. 
3. Use game mechanics that reward tactical thinking. 
4. Use situational bonuses
5. Iron out initiative
6. Maximize mobility
7. Share the dice
8. Create sub-groups
9. Use Crits/Fumbles
10. Use weapon abilities

B. Game Related Activities for time Between Actions 
1. Leave the books on the table
2. Use maps/visual aids

A. Making Existing Combat More Interesting

1. Give players reasons to listen to the details of combat. One of the reasons players tune out when waiting for their turn is they only want to know if their attack is successful or not, and if an attack is successful on them. Sometimes they will want to know about their allies attacks as well, and the attacks on other party members. But even then it becomes focused on the HP damage done only, the stats. 

One way to counter this is to give them more reasons to listen to what is going on. An easy way to do that is to add or take away information. 

One way I do that is with descriptive damage, e.g. I do not report HP damage done to the PCs, instead the players know that HP are primarily non-physical, and so I will describe “near misses” for some blows (as some HP represent dodging ability) “glancing blows” for attacks that don't do much damage, and “crushing blows” and “deep gashes” for attacks that do a lot of damage. By taking away the exact HP report to the players, they become more attentive to the descriptions.

On the flip side, this has the added bonus of giving them hints as to how badly damaged a monster is from their attacks. Normally a PC does say 8hp of damage to an ogre, if all you do is report the HP damage done, you really have no idea how many HP the monster still has. However, using described damage if the monster takes what I describe as a “serious blow” the PC knows they have done a significant % of the monster’s HP in damage for their attack. Again, the point is that they need to focus on the description to get this information. 

2. Put mechanics in front of them. There is a lot of D&D on tables, but putting information on a character sheet means the players are more likely to see it and put it to use. For example, I put a box on the character sheet that lists the number needed for each PC to hit the various ACs. So when a PC hits a monster with a roll of X, they often tell everyone "I hit AC Y", so they and everyone else knows the monster is at worst AC Y. It often leads other players to ask, “What AC did you hit” knowing that their fellow player has that table on their sheet as well. 

You can achieve the same thing by listing THACO on a PC sheet, as a bonus, because THACO is one number, the other players often get to know each other’s THACO, so they will often note when a PC hits an opponent with a roll of X that since the PC’s THACO is Y, the monster has an AC of at least Z, that sort of thing. The point here is to give them another reason to pay attention to what’s happening with other players when its not their turn.

3. Use game mechanics that reward tactical thinking. If the PCs are thinking about tactics they will have to pay attention to what is happening, not just for them, but for everyone in the fight. It may seem obvious, but having a range of combat options means that you need to think a bit about what to use, and pay attention to what others are doing, as it will help you survive. 

So for example, we use a range of stats for weapons: variable damage, speed, weight, length, WvrsAC modifiers, special weapon effects (e.g. dismounting, sweeping, disarming). Thus in any combat there are bonuses and penalties, plusses and minuses to weapon choices. So that keeps them more engaged during combat. Weapons with lower weapon speeds are faster, some weapons allow you to disarm an opponent, etc. 

The system in 1e is elegant as fighters get the most weapon proficiency slots, so everyone benefits from the use of a large range of weapon stats, but fighters benefit most. 

4. Use situational bonuses. e.g. flanking rules, high ground bonuses, cover and concealment rules, distance penalties, WvrsAC modifiers, etc. You will forget them sometimes, but the PCs will remember it when these bonuses save their lives, then they will seek them out. That will refocus them on combat again. 

I recommend printing out your list of standard situational bonuses, and keeping it handy. My players often ask if they are flanking or not with complex melees, they don’t want those bonuses to go to someone else. And it doesn’t require every player to be interested in this to make it work, those who are interested will become engaged. Those who aren’t won’t seek out the situational advantages in play. 

5. Iron out initiative
The goal here is to avoid anything that is too “rinse, wash, repeat”, order of attack matters to the players in most cases I’ve seen, so that means they are interested, but initiative can’t be too complex, or can’t produce the same distribution of attacks too often, that, in my experience, has made them unpopular. 

So the goal is to introduce SOME uncertainty, to model the chaos of combat, but not TOO MUCH, and to keep the modifiers to a minimum. Some modifiers are good, again, to allow the players to fight tactically, and to allow some choice, but too many are restrictive.

I use a d6 for randomness plus modifiers for dexterity, magic weapon “+” and weapon speed. Because these are fixed bonuses, they are easy to remember, the party thief for example with a 16 Dex gets a 1 point bonus, so on a weapon speed 2 shortsword, he would have a fixed 1 point penalty on their initiative roll. A longsword in the hands of the city watchman with no dex bonus has a weapon speed of 3. 

I use individual initiative as it spreads out the results more, introduces more randomness to the process. It doesn’t take any more time either, which is nice. The time taken for initiative is related to the time the players spend deciding their actions, that’s independent of group or individual rolling. Since bonuses are fixed they are easy to remember. And using weapons with different weapon speeds gives them another tactical choice to pay attention to, speed.

6. Maximize mobility
When PCs can move around it gives them reason to think about moving around, and look at the positions of everyone in the melee. In D&D the tendency is to lay out the minis, everyone states actions and rolls, and we record the results. They don’t move around much. Anything that promotes mobility in the combat round can increase engagement.

For example, I allow moving around your action, which encourages players to pay attention to what everyone is doing to see if they can get a positional advantage.

I also encourage using the 1e assumption that two combatants in melee are at a 10’ distance from each other (melee range), or less. Place the minis with that in mind, and treat each pair as a separate epicyle of combat. Then go through the order of initiative, and for each pair have one move anywhere through that 10’ rad space to get to strike for their attack, and end up near them when the attack is executed. 

In individual initiative, your “pair’ in that fight might not go right after that, their action turn could be later (system dependent), if that’s the case when their turn comes they also should move through the 10’ space as desired to attack. That can produce the possibility of flank attacks. So in my game if you strike the segment after your attacker strikes you are right beside them, if you strike in a later segment and can move beside the opponent with your movement rate, you can strike from the flank, or even the back. 

The point is to encourage more movement by the players, more positioning, that gives them more to focus on. Interestingly, some players focus on specific things and ignore others. The goal isn’t to have EVERYONE take advantage of every rule available, its to have a VARIETY of rules so different players will focus on what they find cool or interesting for them.

I sometimes do theatre of the mind. Theatre of the mind forces the players to focus on you and ask you questions. For some groups that will keep the players engaged. For others it may not. 

7. Share the dice
Have players roll for you, or run your monsters in certain scenarios. They can’t run the BBG for example, but there are situations where you have many “mooks” engaging the party, letting the players do some rolling for you gives them something to keep them engaged between consecutive executions of their action.

Since I use individual initiative, sometimes I will get my players to roll for themselves then each one roll an additional dice for me, which I apply to the appropriate combatant. 

When the two party fighters are captured by the bandits, have their players roll "to hit" rolls for the bandits until their characters are back in play. 

The group was assailed by a sea serpent, it’s only attack was to ram the ship, then try to coil around it. One of the PCs was down due to damage so she rolled for each ramming attack, and rolled structural damage to the ship. 

8. Create sub-groups
One of the factors that can create disengagement is isolation, creating sub-groups in the party for combat can give them another point of focus, tactics with their group and between groups. 

I encourage PCs to pair into "fire teams", pairs or triads of PCs that coordinate their attacks, the classic example is a warlock and a tank, the smaller group will coordinate and be more engaged in their counterpart's action, and looking to see what other groups are doing, both keeps them engaged with combat.

One important caveat, you don’t have to do all of these, some won’t work with your group, some will. This isn’t an “all or nothing” thing, it’s a “lot’s of tools in your toolbox” thing. You may be doing your own version of any of these already. These are ways of addressing the time between your turns, and creating interest in what is going on at the table. 

9. Use Crits/Fumbles
Gygax didn’t like these, as crits were quite deadly, and since the DM had an endless supply of monsters, the players were at a disadvantage they did not perceive. So I get the trepedation, but crits are a way to add some nuance to combat that isn’t embedded in “feats” and extra character abilities. 

One of the advantages of crits and fumbles is that they add flavor to combat, a good crit/fumble table can create the most memorable results at the table. However, it can’t be too deadly, or it’s going to wreak havoc. I think the increased attention and interest that these create is worth using them, adding variety to combat always increases engagement.

In my game I produced a table of 12 results for each, some would need to be re-rolled as they were all situational, e.g. disarm your opponent, knock your opponent down, stun your opponent, blind your opponent, double your base dice bonus, or, fall prone, lose your weapon, lose your next attack, take -2 on your next attack, etc.

The way these weave and spin through combat based on a 5% probability is quite beautiful. And since the monsters also roll them, it is fair. Sometimes a result won’t be possible (you can’t disarm a shark), the group can agree on re-rolling impossible results or just ditching the result in that case. DM’s who are concerned that 5% frequency of crits and fumbles is too much can choose to ditch.

10. Use weapon abilities
The advantage of crits and fumbles is that they create interest in combat but are not tied to a “character build” so they don’t necessitate more work for the PC. Also, they are random as they are generated by the dice, which keeps it interesting.

However, tying interesting combat mechanics to weapons is another way to create more interest. It gives players options that aren’t tied directly to character abilities or scores. And as they are in the weapons they can be switched out easily. The game allows fighters more weapons, so they get more of this, but everyone can get something.

In 1e this takes the form of things like planting a pole arm in the ground to double damage against a charging opponent, or disarming or dismounting an opponent with a weapon. I have added things like sweeps for pole arms, shield bashes for shields, disarming for a range of weapons, these sorts of situational bonuses are tied to character choices and thus create engagement at the table.

B. Game Related Activities for time Between Actions 
1. Leave the books on the table. 
Gygax would have my head for this… 

Presumedly some of your players eventually want to run their own games, so leave the rulebooks there for them to look at, including the monster books and DM's guide.
The only thing I prohibit is looking up the monster you are currently fighting, or reading modules we might play. Any of the rulebooks are fair game.

I think there is a tendency to assume that the more they know the more difficult they will be to DM for, but this is not the case. The more they know the more they want to know, so leaving the books out to be read means they will be able to be engaged in the game even if they aren’t engaged in the combat at that time. 

2. Use maps/visual aids
I would encourage battle maps for combat, and minis or counters, as it helps players to visualize the combat, and gives them options to act upon. 

But beyond that, a regional map lying around during combat is a potential point of interest for the players not currently completing their actions. A city map is an endless point of interest for players to want to explore something of that size. 

Also, where possible I use visual aids, if I can find a picture of an outdoor environment, a cityscape, a monster, the players can focus on that when they are waiting for their turn. It’s why I also encourage character art, it helps to stay immersed and gives them something to look at and focus on while in play that keeps them in the game.

Hopefully one or more of these will be helpful to create more engagement in combat in your D&D game, or at least give them something game related to do between actions. 

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