Sunday, October 18, 2020

Randomization - It’s Not What you Think!

After seeing a number of tweets on monster HP and such, I think it’s time for a discussion of randomization. From what I can see there are a lot of people who see randomization as a waste of time, something that slows down the game when the ref, or the ref and the players in collaboration, could just assign something rather than rolling for it.

I see and understand the concern, we all have limited time to play, and the ref already has a ton of responsibilities, so why randomize a lot of things? Randomization has costs, but it also brings rich rewards to the gaming table. 

I walk the walk on this particular issue, in my game I randomize:

1. Initiative (individual)

2. Monster HP/Player HP

3. Encounter Reaction/Morale

4. Random encounters

5. Target selection 

6. Missile fire into melee

7. NPC/monster decision making 

8. Treasure generation

9. Spell distribution

10. Situational modifiers

1. Initiative (individual)

I see a lot of people essentially saying that randomization in initiative is a waste of time.

I think this is a mistake. The single greatest time waster at the table is player indecision, hands down. I have played TTRPGs of various stripes for years, and invariably there is one player (or more) that will be waiting for their turn for however long it takes all the other players to take theirs, and when you get to them… they still don’t have a clue what they will be doing. There are players who have been playing the same PC for years who still have to ask the ref how long it takes to cast their spell, or if it has a saving throw. 

I randomize initiative and use individual initiative as it adds a layer of uncertainty to combat. Probably the single most common complaint I hear about combat is that it is “boring”, and people seem to assume that simplifying it will solve the problem as they think that crunch is the issue. However, when combat is exciting it doesn’t matter if it takes time.

Using randomized individual initiative means the combat order changes every round, as there are modifiers it doesn’t change completely, but it does vary. I’ve ran games with group initiative and they can be exceptionally “swingy”, where one group gets the initiative and has multiple attacks before the other side can even respond. It’s essentially converting initiative to surprise, and it can make combat either super easy or super hard. Both are unappealing.

2. Monster HP/Player HP

This is another big one. I roll randomly for monster HP, generally on the spot when the monster is first hit in battle. When the players are used to monsters with average HP they get to know very quickly what to expect when they meet certain monsters. There is an advantage to this, it rewards experience to some degree, but it also creates predictability and boredom. Players become overconfident and monsters lose some of the excitement that comes from NOT KNOWING HOW STRONG THEY ARE. 

It also contributes to the “slog” of fighting, when you take the average HP you cut out the cases where the monsters have less than average HP, cases where the fight would have ended much sooner. One of the reasons why ref’s have to “hand wave” encounters and end them by fiat prematurely is that taking the average means that there will be no low HP monsters in the mix, and combat will last longer. I see these sorts of complaints regularly, “combat lasts too long”, stated by refs who use average monster HP to “save time”. 

I also have the players roll for HP, which is probably pretty common, but I have heard people suggest that players should either get minimum HP or HP kickers or whatever. Again, I get the temptation, there is nothing quite as challenging as rolling a 1hp first level fighter. Ouch. But rolling for HP means that you will have variation in the party, some PCs will have a lot, some not as many, and play will have to be altered to take this into account. I once rolled up a 1 hp illusionist, I kept him alive through EXTREMELY DILIGENT PLAY. I had to be careful, as I didn’t have a huge bag of HP to save me. It was extremely fun to play.

3. Encounter reaction/Morale - I see endless discussion of how D&D is a “hack and slash” game, and how it encourages violence. One of the reasons for this is that the reaction of opponents, and their response to violence, is chosen by the ref, and often falls into the trap of the NPC/monster being violent by default, and fighting to the death every time. 1e AD&D has encounter reaction rolls to mitigate the former, and morale to mitigate the latter.

Both are rolls, so they have a random element, making them somewhat unpredictable, but not completely random. Encounter reaction rolls are a boon to the game as they make it such that not every encounter is violent, and they force the ref to improvise to explain the results. This can produce a ton of inspiration in game. Morale rolls are great as the end some fights earlier on, so a “fight to the death” isn’t the default.

4. Random Encounters - I see this sort of advice all the time: “Avoid random encounters as they deviate the party from their goals and increase the possibility of later encounters being too hard.” The idea seems to be that randomization messes up the balance of things and takes too much time away from game play, it is a “distraction”. 

But this misses the true value of randomization. Randomization makes things unpredictable. My players can’t know how many random encounters they will have from point a to point b, so they can’t control for that. They have to adapt to circumstances. Not only that, but random encounters place a COST on taking your time. 

How many times have I heard this sort of complaint: “My players wander around and waste time”, “they don’t know what to do”, “they can make up their minds”, etc, etc. There is no “rush” to play D&D, but “analysis paralysis” is real, and if you don’t use random encounters there is often no cost to doing nothing at all. 

Think as well of the problem of your players complaining that things are “too easy”. One of the reasons that PCs often have it too easy (how many complaints have I see that, for example, 5e is too easy on the PCs) is that they face their challenges fresh with full HP and full abilities. One of the advantages of random encounters is that they drain resources and HP, so when they get to the encounters of interest they aren’t always at peak power. 

Random encounters also add to the lethality of the game, and if you want to make your D&D exciting nothing gives it a shot in the arm as fast as death. In 1e AD&D random encounter tables are not “balanced”, you can meet things way beyond your pay scale on a random encounter table, so the players learn to be wary and not fight everything that walks, swims or flies. Unpredictability plus resource consumption keeps the game challenging.

5. Target selection - Unless there are obvious reasons to do otherwise (e.g. the PC wizard has cast fireball), I have my NPCs/Monsters random target PCs in combat. I sometimes choose targets based on the PCs which have done the most damage in combat (e.g. the monsters note that the shiny knight has killed the most of them so far), but otherwise I roll randomly. This simulates to some degree the “fog of war” that comes from a chaotic melee. But it also removes the possibility that I will unfairly (consciously or unconsciously) target one PC more than others. And it keeps them on their toes, they don’t expect that they will be “safe” because there are “obvious” targets in their group. And it keeps fights a bit more unpredictable.

6. Missile fire into melee - I have been doing this for years and it really helps to add to your tactical game. Firing an arrow into a chaotic melee is a dangerous thing to do, so I randomize targets when missile fire into melee misses its intended target. What this does is add a cost to firing into a mixed group, friendy fire, and thus gets the PCs to coordinate a bit more when fighting. And of course it works both ways, so sometimes an NPC will take out an ally rather than one of the party members. This also adds to the uncertainty of combat. 

7. NPC/monster decision making - NPCs/monsters often have multiple actions available to them. There is a STRONG tendency as a ref to optimize their decision making, as the ref you know the party’s capabilities, so it’s not hard to pick the “best” tactic. Conversely, as the ref you can also pick the worst option if you so choose, and make the encounter “easier”.

The problem with both of these options is that it puts a burden on the ref to ensure that they don’t fall into patterns, and they don’t make the game too predictable. I find it much easier to roll randomly at least some of the time to choose between NPC/Monster actions, so both the players and the ref have some uncertainty. 

It also adds excitement to the game as sometimes the PCs are outmatched because the NPC/Monster makes a good choice, but sometimes they get a break in combat as well because the NPC/Monster makes a sub-optimal choice. 

But the real value is uncertainty, if you KNOW that the dragon will always lead with a breath weapon then the dragon becomes predictable, and in some cases much easier to fight as you can anticipate and plan for their actions. Randomizing amongst actions for monsters/NPCs with multiple attack options means everyone, from ref to players, will have a degree of uncertainty.

8. Treasure generation - Oh my do people get excited about this. I roll for treasure ON THE SPOT in my games. So if the PCs find a lair neither they nor I know what is coming. Again, some people dislike this as you can generate a magic item that is VERY powerful. What they forget is that you can also roll ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for treasure from a fight that was very difficult. 

There are a few advantages to this. First, players learn that fighting everything is not a good idea. If you don’t know that there will be loot at the end of every fight, you start to question whether or not fighting everything is worth it (Pro tip - it ain’t). It also adds a bit of wonder back into getting magic items. When you “tailor” items to the PCs, and you give out planned treasure, it can get both predictable and it can drop you out of the immersion a bit. I look at treasure listings for parties and quite often see a pattern, everyone has a magical weapon, everyone has healing magic, everyone has protective magic, etc. 

Not only is this kind of dull, but it blunts one of the benefits of class membership. In AD&D magic items are rolled from random tables, but these tables are weighted so certain items come up more often. Choosing magic items means that you lose this distribution, and the distribution of magic items represents a class advantage for certain classes. Magic-users in 1e, for example, get an advantage from the dearth of scrolls and potions on the list. Fighters get advantages from the frequency of magic weapons and armor, etc.

The game can also get out of hand with respect to magic items if you assign them all the time. In short, many tend to assign too much magic treasure when it is done manually. Then you hear the complaints about the game being “too easy”. 

Another benefit, is that you can end up with interesting, unusual items being given to PCs that would not normally get them. When you assign magic items you often end up giving out items you *think* that the PCs need, or that you *think* are “cool” for those PCs. But it’s the unplanned stuff that frequently ends up being the most interesting. Case in point I rolled up a pair of boots of levitation for treasure. I never would have picked them as there was no character in particular that they seemed to be a “best fit” for. They ended up going to the party paladin. Now, if I had been told to PICK a magic item for a paladin, these would not have come to mind. 

But it ends up that he LOVED these boots, they became a part of the character, his tactics, his mobility, even his personality to some degree. These sorts of synergies are completely unpredictable, but they can really work well, and create unique, fun moments at the table. 

Finally, there is always the possibility of getting a powerful magic item at low levels. Contrary to what people think, this ADDS A TON OF FUN to a game! Suddenly your low level group has something WAY beyond their pay scale, so there are NPCs galore who will now be interested in the group. This can create adventure hooks, it can feed into faction play, and it can become an important part of the game. 

9. Spell distribution - Another area where people often lose the plot in conversations about gaming is the idea of random spell allocation. I embraced this early on and it is, IMO, one of the best decisions I ever made. As anyone who has ref’d for a while will tell you, MOST, not all, but most players will, if given the choice, take similar spells. 

So I randomize it all. When a PC picks a patron/trainer I roll randomly to see what spells they have, and when the PC gets each of their “level up” free spells from their patron they have to ask the patron for a particular spell from this list. And of course they have to roll their “to know” percentage, and if they fail this random roll then they can’t memorize that particular spell.

I also roll randomly for spells in treasure hoards. This is a HUGE thing, as AD&D 1st edition has a mechanic for lower level casters casting higher level spells, so they can actually add a lot to the game. Of course, there is a chance of miscasting or harmful failure, so it isn’t a slam dunk, but given the prevalence of scrolls on the spell table, this is an important route to spell acquisition for low level casters. 

Also, since the roll is both for the number of spells and the level of those spells, a single scroll can be a motherlode for a low level caster. And of course, since you have the option of casting that spell before you are high enough level to scribe it into your book, you have a resource management challenge of delicious proportions. If you assign spells, and level appropriate spells, you miss out on this whole aspect of the game.

But the most important aspect of random spell allocation and the use of “to know” rolls to randomize which spells are memorizable or not is that it makes every magic-user a bit more unique. One of the biggest problems I see with pregen casters is that they quite frequently look the same, most of them take the same spells because they are chosen, not randomly rolled. Because my players know I roll for these things, magic-users in my game have tactical opacity, my players can’t know for sure what they will be facing, and this makes them more cautious, perhaps that 1st level magic-user has a high level scroll spell. Of course, their odds of casting it might not be high, but if there is a chance…

Randomization of spell distribution is the single largest contributor to the fact that magic-users in my game are unique and exciting as allies and opponents. I’ll never go back.

10. Situational modifiers - when something happens in game and there is no rule for it (or I can’t remember the rule!) I assign odds and randomize the outcome. Usually giving a range of options from really bad to really good. 

So the PC thief attempting a climb walls on the north wall of a building falls from the wall to the grass below, and I roll a d10: 

1-2 the guards on the south wall don’t hear the fall

3-4 the guards on the south wall hear the fall but choose to ignore it

5-6 the guards on the south wall hear the fall and one moves slowly to check it out

7-8 the guards on the south wall hear the fall and both move slowly to check it out

9-10 the guards on the south wall hear the fall, one runs to it, the other calls to the guards inside

I could have just said, “the guards hear you fall and come running”, and that would have been fine, but I find that if I don’t randomize these things I tend to respond the same way most times. So the guards always come running when a noise is made. In some cases I roll to see if the guards are gambling, or sleeping, or whatever. This means that sometimes you fail a roll but things don’t go completely south, or you get something that adds an additional wrinkle that requires some creativity.


Randomization does a few things for your game:

a) It makes encounters less predictable for the players

b) its inspirational, sometimes the dice come up with something you wouldn’t 

c) its challenging, making a random result work at the table can force you out of your comfort zone

d) it makes the game less predictable for the ref as well

e) it adds some variety to characters and NPCs

I think for me that the biggest issue is predictability. Not being able to predict what will happen in SOME cases will make the game more rewarding, as it keeps it fresh, and forces the players to be adaptive, not passive, and keeps them challenged. It also brings out the best in the referee, figuring out how to interpret and integrate random rolls is endless improvisational fodder. 

It also contributes to making violence VERY VERY dangerous. I like games where violence is VERY VERY dangerous, because in those games resorting to violence too much will work out badly for you, particularly when a meaningful part of the violence is governed by random rolls which the PC cannot control. 

It does require trusting that the ref and players can work out whatever comes up, and it means that sometimes the players will get borked by the dice. That’s the nature of randomization, but it also deals with so many of the regular problems I see mentioned about the game, such as overpowered PCs, boring combat, excessive magic items, etc.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Pass/Fail Mechanics and Dungeons and Dragons


Picture by Grandanvil on Deviantart (

Had a great session yesterday and it made me realize something about pass/fail mechanics in D&D. I see a lot of criticism of pass/fail mechanics, and a call for “fail forward” mechanics as an alternative. The take I see most often is that pass/fail mechanics are boring, old fashioned, or they are claimed to be “limiting” and they force the game into “binary” choices. They demonstrate a “lack of imagination”, or are just “bad design”. 

I’ve always wondered about that, because I’ve been using pass/fail mechanics for years and they seem to work well. Part of the problem I think is one of formality. For example, I routinely assign a set of “better worse” options to an action if it seems appropriate. So if the party fighter wants to distract the guards so they can sneak by, and throws a rock, I might assign a d8 roll as follows: 1-2 the guards ignore it, 3-4 the guards look in the other direction for a short time, 5-6 the guards look in the other direction for a long time, 7-8 the guards run over to where the rock was thrown. Obviously the options represent degrees of success, with the 7-8 being the best.

Assigning “good to bad” options for an action is something that I (and I assume most) D&D refs do off the cuff all the time, in order to capture a range of options in cases where there are no explicit rules. But that sort of thing is not “baked into” the game itself. The closest AD&D comes to this is where Gygax suggests that in a case where the rules don’t cover something you should just assign odds as you see fit. Still, he doesn’t specify using grades of success or failure, and many of the mechanics in D&D are pass/fail, so even if this is done informally, formally the rules don’t give you examples of graded success or failure. 

Newer games are more explicit about this, suggesting that rather than failure you should use a graded set of results, so extreme failure, partial failure, partial success, complete success, that sort of thing.  Stars Without Number advises this explicity, suggesting that the ref should provide a range of results attached to the roll.

So with the caveat that many D&D refs do this sort of thing informally, what are the advantages to using pass/fail mechanics in the game at all? Are they “old-fashioned”, or “bad design”, is it the case that game designers are just better now so we should abandon the binaries of pass/fail mechanics entirely? 

Maybe not just yet. 

What am I missing? Yesterday's session coalesced my thinking, so I will recount it here.

The Job
A PC had arrived in my homebrew city, and was looking to join the thieves guild. So this was a solo adventure for him. To join the guild you have to pull off a job. In the case of my home brew city, there is a lot of second story work, property theft of valuable items from the homes of prominent locals to boost your reputation, that sort of thing. So when the PC approached the Guild, they proposed the following job.

There was a merchant, Voss Halma, who had enlisted the guild to lean on one of his rivals. However, he was late paying, and was making noise that he wouldn’t pay at all, as his rival went down for other reasons, and Voss figured he shouldn’t have to pay. 

Everyone has to pay.

So the Guild wants to send him a message. Voss had picked up a statue of a tiger, 1’ long, iron core plated in silver. When guild members met him in his home he bragged about it. So the guild had a duplicate made out of glass. The job: break into Voss’ home, replace the silver tiger with the glass one, douse it in oil and burn it. The glass duplicate would crack and burn, the smoke would fill his home, and he’d know it was the guild who did it, to show that he wasn’t safe in his own home. The player agreed to the job. He was given a crude map to show where the house was, and the glass tiger to take in to the house, which he placed in his backpack with nothing else but thieves' tools and rope.

Now, at this point I have no specific rules for “breaking and entering”, I have a thief and a target with an item to steal. Thieves have skill scores, and they are all pass fail, e.g. either you pick the lock or you don’t, you climb the wall or you don’t, you move silently or you don’t, etc. However, breaking into this house was one of the most exciting sessions we have had. How can a series of pass/fail rolls be exciting? Wouldn’t ‘fail forward’ options be better? I think they would be different, but not necessarily better. Why? In short, pass/fail rolls *look* boring and reductive as they are considered in isolation. This is a mistake.

Let’s see what happened. 

The target’s house was located in a compound surrounded by a wall. First, the PC “cased” the joint. He walked around the periphery of the compound to see what was up. The wall was too high for him to see the first floor, but he could see the second floor and he saw that the west wall had no windows on the second floor. Every other wall had windows on the second floor. 

So he decided to climb the wall opposite from the side of the house without windows on the second floor, to minimize the odds of being seen. Of course, he would then have to move around to a side where there were windows in order to get in, unless the side of the house he arrived at had doors on the first floor, which he couldn’t know until he climbed the wall. In this situation there were unknowns that made it impossible to know if this was the best decision or not, but the player went with the most obvious advantage. 

Smart player.

He climbed the wall. That was his first roll, which he passed. He was at the top of the wall. Now, this particular house had wall to ceiling windows along the whole first floor west wall, and no windows on the second floor west wall. He saw that immediately on cresting the wall. 

There was also an alligator roaming the grounds. I rolled that it was on the West side of the compound right now, somewhere in the area where the PC was. I decided there was a 2 in 6 chance that the PC would notice the alligator in the darkness amongst the foliage. This was another pass fail roll. As it happens, he made the roll, so he saw the alligator moving along in the garden. I rolled to see if the alligator noticed him, and it did not. 

So I told him this, “the entire first floor west wall has windows along it, and there could be people inside looking out and seeing you at the top of the wall. There is also an alligator that just walked by. You can stay on the wall and survey the first floor to see if there is anyone inside looking out, or you can drop to the ground and hide in shadows right away to avoid being seen, but that might alert the alligator to your presence when you drop.” Again, this was all based around pass/fail rolls.

A pass fail roll would determine if there was anyone inside looking out if the PC chose to stay on top of the wall to look for people to see if he has been spotted. It would be a pass/fail roll if he dropped to the ground to see if he made noise and alerted the alligator. And if he did make it to the ground and there were people inside that could be looking out, it would be a pass fail roll to see if he could hide in shadows. 

So the player decided to drop down immediately and risk the alligator’s attention. He did so, and I rolled to see if the alligator heard. The thief made the roll and landed silently. Now I had to roll to see if the guards in the house (there were two) saw the player crest the wall. There was a small chance of this as he was only there for a moment, so I made it a 1 in 20 chance. Again, this was pass/fail, there were no fail forward conditions for the roll, but it was exciting as the player knew the jig was up if they happened to see him.

They did not. So now the PC had to hide in shadows to ensure that the guards didn’t spot him in the yard, and that the alligator didn’t either. Incidentally I rolled to see if the alligator turned around and came back this way. I rolled that it did not. Then the PC rolled to hide in shadows.

This roll was successful. So when no one noticed him he asked to look at the building in more detail and I described what was there, several different rooms, all visible through the large windows. And two guards inside. I decided they would be attentive or inattentive, just because there are guards there they won’t necessarily be doing their jobs well, so another pass/fail roll to determine that. 

I rolled “inattentive”, so I told the PC that they appeared to be playing cards, and that they did not appear to be looking out at him. So then he asked if he could spot the silver tiger in any of the rooms he could see. I told him that it was nowhere to be seen.

So then he had to decide what to do. He considered moving along the outer wall of the compound and heading towards the next wall (the south wall) of the house. He specifically said he wanted to stay against the outside wall and far from the house. As the alligator had moved on, the guards were playing cards and he was a distance from the house I told him he didn’t have to make a move silently roll in this case. The player was benefitting from his choice to stay far from the house and move around it rather than approaching, so he avoided having to make that pass/fail roll. 

And of course, if he stayed there in place the alligator might come back, I would roll for that. So even before having to make a pass/fail roll, the player has to make choices that he knows will possibly trigger a roll, and that in and of itself is part of the excitement. They know that if they are smart they can avoid certain rolls that might put them in a worse situation.

He chose to move along the outer wall to the South wall of the house, it took longer (and thus risked the alligator coming back, I rolled for that!) but he didn’t have to roll to move silently and risk that failure alerting the guards. He made it around to the portion of the compound across from the South wall of the house. He then bolted to the wall and began climbing to the second floor. That was another pass fail roll, which he made. 

Then I had to determine if the windows were locked. Yet another pass/fail roll. I told the PC, “The window may or may not be locked, I’ll roll for that”. I rolled that it was locked. He then knew that I would roll for each window, pass fail each time, and that they might ALL be locked. Knowing that this is a possibility made the choice exciting, stay and try to unlock the window while hanging on the wall, or move on to the next one and hope to get lucky while risking falling while climbing across. Again, both pass/fail rolls, but the excitement comes from weighing the odds and choosing between risky options

He decided to move on, and made a successful pass/fail roll to climb walls to the next window. That window was also locked. He contemplated trying to unlock it but felt that would be too risky, so climbed across to the corner and around to the next wall. That’s when he failed his roll, and plummeted to the ground. Fortunately he was only about 15 feet up on the wall, and rolled low damage on the fall.  

I then had to roll to see if the guards or the alligator noticed the sound of him falling. The house is in the city, and there are always noises around. So even the fail result of a pass/fail roll on climb walls has more than just a binary result. I set it up like this, 1-2 the sound was not noticed, 3-4 it was noticed but ignored, 5-6 it was noticed and investigated. I rolled a 1 for the guards and a 6 for the alligator. I then had to roll to see how far the alligator was from the thief. It was close, 40’ away, at the alligator’s movement rate that would mean 4 segments to reach the thief. 

I told him he heard movement in the garden, what would he do? He decided to climb back up the wall as the alligator couldn’t follow him there. He made this roll and climbed the wall to the next window. I rolled to see if that window was locked, and it wasn’t! Success. Now he opened the window and crawled into a hallway with three doors.

The hallway was dark but the thief is a rakasta, so he has dark vision, this means he sees heat, and there appeared to be no living things in the hallway. He crept down the hall and found his first door. He opened it and saw into a room that appeared to be a kitchen, he looked around without going in and decided to leave. That took two rounds. He left and checked out the next door which revealed what appeared to be a pantry. I didn’t give details as it was dark, but his dark vision would allow him to make out gross differences. He looked around and left, another 2 rounds.

He went further down the hall and opened a door that led to another hallway, this one with two doors. Now, as it happens I had decided that there were guards on the first floor and a small group of flightless birds that roamed the second floor. Flightless birds are common in the city setting, and they are like cats or dogs, if they see anyone wandering around the house they will squawk and make noise, drawing attention to them. I would roll to see if one showed up every turn. Another round went by going quietly down the hall.

So he entered the hallway and tried the door on the right. He specifically said he would open it gently and slowly, and if it was making too much noise he would stop. He didn’t do this for the first two doors he opened, I guess he was getting nervous the longer he was creeping around. This is exactly the situation you want as a ref, building tension associated with player actions.

This door opened up to a bedroom, the merchant was sleeping on the bed and there was a large orange lizard curled up at the end of the bed, also sleeping. This was another one of the merchant’s security features, a trained giant lizard (the size of a large dog) in his room. I rolled to see if he woke the occupants opening the door, but I gave it a 1 in 10 chance of waking the lizard, and a 1 in 12 chance of waking the merchant since the player had just opened the door and specifically said he was doing so carefully and quietly .   

They both failed to wake. Then the player decided to stay out of the room but look through the crack opening to see if the silver tiger was in the room. Opening the door slowly and quietly, and then thoroughly surveying the room from a distance in the dark took 5 rounds. 

He then decided to check out the next door further down the hall. He took similar precautions in terms of opening quietly, and that took another round, so I had to roll to see if one of the flightless birds showed up. It did! Now, the player was far down the hallway in the dark, and the bird poked its head into the hallway through the door he had opened.

So I had to decide how to handle this. First I made a roll to see if the bird surprised the thief, he might not notice the bird. In this case the bird did not surprise the thief. However, I rolled that the thief surprised the bird. So he could do what he wanted, enter the door to hide, run to the bird, that sort of thing. The hallway was dark and he was near the end of it, about 40’ from the bird, so the PC decided to try a hide in shadows roll to avoid being seen by the bird. It was a tortured choice! He knew that if the bird started to make noise he was sunk, stuck on the second floor with 2 guards in the building, an alligator outside and a giant lizard in the next room. 

He was successful at the hide in shadows roll, and the bird left. 

So now he tried the door, and it was locked! There was an immediate hue and cry in the room as they knew the clock was ticking, every moment that he was there made it more likely he would be found. But he decided that the locked door was a good sign he was in the right place, and he took out his lockpicking tools. Now, as it happens, the PC had picked up a pair of eyes of minute seeing recently (his only magic item) and he used the eyes to check the locking mechanism for traps, and to see how it worked to try and pick it. I assigned a bonus to both his find/remove traps roll (there was no trap as it happened) and his pick locks roll. He made the roll, opening the door. I told him that this process might wake up the merchant in the next room, or the lizard. It was a small chance, but just mentioning it created a stir, every time I had to roll it was exciting as it could change everything with one roll!

I rolled, no one woke. He looked into the room. It was a “trophy” room, filled with paintings, elegant rugs and sculptures of various kinds, one of them being a silver tiger!

So that’s where we stopped for the session. He has found his target, and so far evaded detection. Now he has to figure out how to get to the statue, if the room has traps or animals/monsters in it, and get out before being spotted. 

You don’t need fail forward mechanics to make this scenario exciting, what makes it interesting is a few things:

A) The way known choices interact, take the first example, if the PC stays on the wall to survey the first floor they will be more likely to know if there is someone there, but they also increase their odds of being spotted. If they drop to the ground they have less chance of being seen, but won’t know if there is anyone looking out of the first floor windows right away, and of course the alligator might hear them land. If the thief stays up then the alligator won’t notice as it didn’t notice him when he crested the wall in the first place and wouldn’t be likely to look up, but then they might get spotted on the wall. 

This situation is exciting as the nexus of choices doesn’t produce an immediately obvious best option, all are risky, but differently. The PC has a good sense of what the consequences are in this case, it isn’t a case of ignorance, but the choices are not clear as all options have risks. So it’s rarely just “pass/fail and you are done”, it’s “choose which of the pass/fail options you want then deal with the results when no one option is obviously better”. That’s exciting, and draws on player skill at making decisions, not pure luck. 

B) The potentially unknown consequences of the choices, depending on which choice is made, a different set of possibilities (and rolls) can be triggered. Since those sometimes can’t be predicted, they are exciting, and produce a degree of uncertainty that builds tension. Making the wrong choice can lead to having even worse choices to make. This is one of the things that is most often forgotten in these discussions, the ref knows what the consequences of the pass/fail roll are in many cases (e.g. in terms of what other rolls will be triggered), but often the player does not. So what looks like a simple binary option and seems quite uninteresting when discussing game mechanics is exciting for the player as they don’t know what the results will be if they fail.

Even though each individual roll is pass/fail, the result of each roll changes the situation and presents a new set of options, some of which are unknown at the time the player has to make the pass/fail rolls. Within the roll it’s pass/fail, but the uncertainty fuels the excitement.

C) The immediacy of the choices, because these rolls are pass/fail, they have immediate consequences that drive the action forward, EVERY ROLL is exciting as every roll could produce a fail result that could be catastrophic, or a pass result that could be life saving, each roll has immediate risk and reward. With fail forward mechanics one of the side effects is that each roll is less definitive as the results aren’t binary, they can lead to degrees of failure or success, putting off the very bad or very good results.

D) The possibility of “runs”, sometimes the player rolls badly, a lot, and a situation that is mildly dangerous becomes significantly dire due to how those consecutive bad results accumulate. That can be exciting, the player can see how they are spiraling to a bad result, and have to try and figure out how to stop it. 

Conversely, when there is a series of successful rolls it can be beautiful, the PC pulling off some crazy stuff because the dice. They feel like they are “on a roll” and every new roll is exciting as they want to continue with their success. Conversely, consecutive rolls like this can create excitement when there is a string of successes because the player intuitively knows that this can’t last forever, sooner or later you will fail your roll, and the consequences will be dire. That is also something that produces anticipation and excitement. I believe that part of this excitement is that the pass/fail option of each step means that a serious consequence or reward is waiting with every single roll. 

E) Mimicking degrees of failure, when people focus on individual rolls they forget how the rolls are rarely one and done. In most cases, the result of a roll triggers a situation that leads to additional rolls. The set of rolls together often mimic an individual roll with “fail forward” conditions, but instead of one roll where you have a set of options from better to worse, you get a set of rolls where the player gets to make individual decisions along the way and thus has more control over what is happening. Essentially a sequence of pass/fail rolls mimics the individual roll with degrees of success, but it does so organically as each step in the process changes the circumstances.

F) The ability to avoid rolls / weigh choices, player decisions can lead to the mitigation of rolls, so even if you are using a pass/fail mechanic, player ingenuity can lead to avoidance of rolls entirely, which is challenging and fun. Also, the player is often presented with choices between actions that have different costs, for example when the PC had to decide between trying to unlock a window while hanging on the wall and moving to another window to see if it was unlocked. Both odds require simple pass fail rolls, but have different risks and rewards. Weighing those risks and rewards is part of the fun. If you wrap all of the degrees of success/failure into a graded fail forward kind of roll then you are giving the player fewer opportunities to shape the results with their decisions.

G) The consequences of pass/fail are up to the referee, there are cases where the result is pass/fail, e.g. you are noticed by the guards or you are not, but the consequences are graded by the referee. So what do the guards DO if they notice the thief? The fact that the move silently roll is pass/fail doesn’t mean that the consequences need be binary. In fact, they may require a further dice roll to resolve, or the ref may assign consequences that are on the scale of success. Take the case where the PC failed their pass/fail move silently roll but they are not visible to the target, in that case the response to hearing a noise isn’t obvious. I’ve had many cases where players have suggested that a result of a pass/fail roll might lead to another roll or a new condition I hadn’t foreseen. 

Fail forward mechanics are not bad game design. They are good game design. They take a situation with a binary result and open it up to other possibilities. Those possibilities can be negotiated by the ref and the players, the players can even decide on the options to make it more interesting and collaborative. 

But the use of pass/fail mechanics isn’t old fashioned or boring or binary. The individual roll is binary, but when you put it in the context of the choices made by the player and the evolving situation created by the results of those choices, when you see the individual roll as part of risk/reward management, the mix of known and unknown consequences, and a larger series of actions and rolls that make up the actions of the session, you can see that they aren’t boring or binary, they are nodes in a complex, multifaceted and evolving process. 

The players LOVE this process (or at least my players do) as it has risk at every step, but the choices made by the player can mitigate or even avoid those risks entirely, which makes the process engaging and exciting. The burden on the ref with pass/fail mechanics is to use them fairly, estimate odds fairly, do a good job determining how each choice changes the situation and determining what the next rolls will be. The job of the player is to try and avoid having to make these rolls, and when they do make rolls hopefully end up having to make rolls where the odds are in their favor, or the consequences are less dire. 

I find this process to be significantly interactive, challenging, exciting and engrossing. An hour of our session yesterday was dedicated to this solo adventure, I checked in with the other players repeatedly to see if they were enjoying it, as they were spectators. I offered to cut away and run the session for the other players, cutting back and forth so they would have something to do. 

They adamantly refused, watching the thief navigate his choices, watching him roll each time to see if things were going to go south, they were riveted by the process. 

So by all means use fail forward mechanics, they are fun and interactive and are part of exciting games. But don’t reject pass/fail mechanics as they are “old fashioned” or “bad design”. They are part of a system that rewards player creativity and problem solving, and can lead to surprises for both the ref and the players.

Game on!

Sunday, October 11, 2020


Crafting a Special Game - Customizing your D&D Session

I run regular after school games for D&D, but I also run one shots, not infrequently for birthdays. When I do that, I have to change the setup a bit. In a long running campaign you have time to develop things. In a one shot you have a strict limit on what you can do.

Birthday games are also different as they are “about” the birthday player, so they have to highlight or focus them in some way. But it can’t be “all” about them, or the other players will get bored. And it also has to be a challenge, it can’t be “too easy”. Indeed, as all eyes are on the birthday player, all the concessions you make to them, all the opportunities you give them, are going to seem “artificial” to some degree. The players know that one particular player is the focus, so of course their particular ability or resource will be key to “winning the day”. So it’s easy to do an OK job at this, but it’s hard to do a good job. 

I did a good job recently, thought I would share.

I loathe predictability, I want to give them something special. I was recently asked to do a birthday game for one of my regular after school players. The PC in question was the party thri-kreen druid. He’s had a run, 7th level, died and brought back to life once, that was the arc of last year’s campaign, paying back the temple for bringing him back.

His birthday game had three players, him, the player of the party fighter/warlock and the party bard. I spent some time trying to decide what sort of adventure would be fun for the PC druid but still involve the rest of the group. Well, the local druid’s coven in my home brew setting has a “rumor” entry on my rumor table, the rumor is that the local coven, which is organized around animal totems and clans, has discovered a secret coven, organized around monster totems and clans. The arch druid of the local coven needs to infiltrate the secret coven, and gather information. He doesn’t know which of his people to trust, so it’s a perfect hook for the party. The party’s druid has interacted with the local coven, and joined early on, but left and was away for a whole calendar year, when the secret coven has only been around for about 8 months as far as the Archdruid knows. 

I love that a pre-existing rumor entry in the setting table met this need, it is more evidence that the setting is robust.

The party represents the perfect group to infiltrate, it has a druid that will know a lot about what is going on, but not a druid that is recognizable to the members of the secret coven, as he has been gone for a while. The small group is preferable, it’s a good combination.

The party decided to infiltrate the rogue druid’s coven, posing as initiates. However, they coud not use magic or any druidic abilities, as this would raise suspicions. The secret coven knows  the main coven is on to them, so they will be on the lookout. The party has to appear to be 0-level nobodies or they will be challenged. So this added a layer of challenge to the process.

All they knew was where the new coven recruited, in the shantytowns and the outlying areas. They approached day workers who were fishing or picking rice and asked them to consider joining, “to find a meaningful life outside of toil and drudgery for wealth”. 

So the party went to the shantytowns and started picking rice, day 2 a cowled, white robed figure shows up, pays off the supervisor, and tries to recruit workers. The party took the bait and said yes. I threw in a wrinkle though, to test to see if any of the party members might be druids trying to infiltrate their coven the cowled figure spoke to them in druidic, hoping any druid in the group might react spontaneously and speak it as well, or at least react oddly. The player specifically said he was not going to respond in druidic, he figured out the point of it immediately.

They were asked to complete a task, there was another group of three initiates there as well. They were to capture and bring back a giant alligator without killing it. The first group back would move on. The party druid asked if he would know enough about giant alligators to give them an edge in finding one first. I gave them better odds, 1 in 8 chance of finding a giant alligator per turn rather than a 1 in 12. They found one after 5 turns of searching. 

No spells, no magic items. They brainstormed a plan to distract, then grapple, then slip a rope around the maw of this beast. The dice were somewhat cooperative and they pulled it off. On the way back to the druid they found the remains of the other group, their hunt had not gone well…

There next task was to find a special bloom, and bring it back, it was also a race, and there were two possible islands to go to where the bloom could be. There were two other teams as well, 3 each, both with giant alligators from the first round. The party druid asked again if his knowledge of plants would help, I told him he knew that the bloom was generally found at higher elevations, so they knew to look for hills on the island. However, they didn’t know which island to pick. I rolled randomly to see where the other two teams went. They all had to get there on their giant alligators. 

On the way there they passed a tortle settlement, all fishermen. I rolled to see if the other two groups would stop and ask questions. They both moved on. The party decided to check in with the tortles, they asked 3 before someone knew where the blooms in question were found, it was on the East island. So now the party and one other group were headed there.

They were now behind, so the party aarakocra fighter/warlock flew ahead, and overtook the competition, homing in on the hills to the far end of the island. Sure enough the bloom was there, and so were three young black dragons curled up around their bases. These plants are 10’ tall. The PC decided to swoop down and grab some of the bloom and take off, that was all that was required. He successfully grabbed the bloom, but woke the dragons (I had rolled that they were sleeping). 

He took off fast, they were slower, but I rolled to see if any of them would try a breath weapon before he got too far away. One did, but was just too far away when it was time to use it. He escaped and returned to the party. 

They had passed the first two tests, capturing a giant alligator, and finding a rare bloom. Their last task was to make it upriver at night on their giant alligators, to find the coven. This was also a test, the first was a test of restraint, could the party avoid killing something but still tame it. The second was a test of shrewdness and speed, the party that gathered information had an edge. This last test was one of teamwork.

The party was paired off with another group who had passed the tests, three people, two of which were as advertised, a brewer and a tailor, the other was claiming to be a farmer but was actually a NPC 5th level fighter with an agenda of his own. Each group had its own giant alligator.

Making them ride the giant alligators put them in the water. Off about a half mile to the west of the river was a huge giant hornet’s nest, sitting atop the nest was a druid of the rogue coven. He has used speak with animals on a number of crows, which sit along the river

When the party approaches, a crow comes back to him and tells him, and then he sends one giant hornet to intercept the party. If the first is defeated, a crow cries to tell him and he sends two, then three, etc. The giant hornets can be held off or avoided in one of a few ways.

The party can “go dark”, putting out their torches, if everyone does so then the giant hornet only has a 1 in 6 chance of seeing them as it is dark and with a crescent moon. So they might avoid it entirely. If they are successful it will report back that they disappeared and they will make it. They can try to shoot it out of the sky, the giant hornet is loud and big, so they all get to shoot at it when it first appears. If it loses more than ½ it’s HP it crashes. If they don’t take it out of the sky then it attacks one of them. 

They can pool their torches, creating intense enough heat and smoke to drive a giant hornet off. If they do this the hornet will attack but pull back, then leave. If they drive off the hornet they have a 2 in 6 chance of making it the rest of the way without another appearing

If they fail the check, then two more appear up river to attack them. If they have gone dark there is a 1 in 6 chance they are seen. If they pool torches again the pair of hornets will dive attack twice and pull back and leave. They can make it the rest of the way without hornets after that

So the party headed upriver. They discussed the druid’s cult, the NPCs revealed that the cult had been actively recruiting, and that they had heard that the cult was a rival to the druid’s cult associated with the city. This was true, the party was agent’s of the city coven

I used the NPCs conversation to add some atmosphere, one of the NPCs asked them if they thought it was strange that their tests had been so dangerous. I had described the dead bodies of initiates that didn’t make it. The players started to ask questions too, how long was this going on? We kept the conversation going for a bit then the first giant hornet showed up. There was surprise indicated for the party, so they spotted it first and it noticed them too late. They all took out missile weapons, bows, crossbows and slings, and let loose at the thing. 

They did more than 50% of its HP in damage, so it came down out of the sky. I rolled to see if it crashed into anyone, and it narrowly missed one of the PCs. Once in the water, wounded, it drowned. The party continued up river with torches lit. I rolled, after 5 rounds a pair of hornets appeared

They decided to do the same thing, but this time the party fighter/warlock, an aarakocra, flew up into the air with a torch, planning on looping above the giant hornets (he was substantially faster than them) and dropping it on them. The party bard and druid, along with the NPCs took out one of the giant hornets with the first volley, and the NPC fighter threw his battle axe into one as it passed closely, wounded it and sending it crashing to the water, narrowly missing the NPCs this time. With both dead the aarakocra PC asked what he could see up in the sky

I rolled to see if he would notice the two most prominent landmarks. One was the giant hornet’s nest, the other was the giant tree where the coven meets. Aarakocra have good eyesight, and they were looking for a druid’s coven, so I gave him a 4 in 6 chance on this, which he passed. I gave him a 2 in 6 on the nest. He rolled that too. So he saw there was a white robed lizard man with thorny vines wrapped around his left arm and a staff at his feet sitting cross-legged on this giant hornet’s nest, hornets were crawling in and out of the nest.  

Then the party started to talk. They were worried more giant hornets would show up. They brainstormed, what could they do? One of them suggested that regular hornets didn’t like smoke and fire, so maybe they could use their torches. They decided the torches were too small. Then one of them asked if they could find a stretch of the riverside that was somewhat swampy and wet with tall reeds or grasses beside. I rolled that it took a turn to find that (I rolled a d20 for the number of rounds). I rolled to see how long it would be until the three hornets appeared and I got 15 rounds (d20 for this too). So what did they want to do? They asked if the reeds and grasses were dry enough to burn but wet enough at the base to prevent a wildfire from spreading through the marshes. I asked them if they knew what marshes were full of, after a pause, “Swamp gas!”, yep, they were right, “so we could ignite swamp gas and kill ourselves!”, I said,”well, you could set off a pocket of swamp gas, your party druid would likely know that, but it's pretty unlikely if its windy. I rolled to see if it had rained earlier that day, and it had not, and I rolled to see if it was windy, and it was, so the bushes and reeds were dry and burned easily but did not ignite swamp gas. They had oil as well, and added that, so in the 5 rounds they started a decent conflagration, one that would hopefully stop when the reeds/grasses burned to the swampy ground. 

Then the three giant hornets appeared. I decided that they would either flee from the fire as they dislike it, or fly to it knowing the party was likely near. I decided it was a 4 in 6 chance they would flee, and a 2 in 6 they would fly closer and see the party near the flames. I rolled that they moved on. The party now had a choice. Stay by the fire for safety or flee. So the clock started. They decided to flee, but took 5 minutes to isolate the fire so it would not spread by splashing water on it’s edges. I rolled to see how long it would be before the giant hornets came back to see if they were there. I rolled 2 turns. 

When they got back in the water one of the players asked me if giant insects had infravision. Boom. They were thinking it out. Note that this is a great example of a fairly standard thing that tables do differently, whether or not a monster has infravision is not always indicated in the description, so it’s up to the DM. 

I said, “your party druid might know”. “Are giant insects the same as regular insects”, he asked, I said, “sometimes yes, sometimes no”. That’s another local variation, in my game I tend to assume that giant X’s are more or less the same as small X’s, but bigger. 

He asked, “do regular hornets have infravision?” I said “No”, as his PC would likely know that. So they talked, and decided to douse their torches, “maybe that’s the third challenge, to get by the hornets rather than fight them”. He was close, it was to use teamwork and smarts, which they had.

So they went dark and directed the alligators to the riverside. Then one of them suggested to go after the man on the hornets nest, rather than continuing up river to face more hornets. The newest batch of three hornets passed overhead without noticing them, and they went in. They arrived at the giant hornet’s nest, and talked. What should they do? The party bard reasoned that this was probably one of the coven druids testing them, so they should just present themselves. So they did, walking out, dropping their weapons and calling for mercy

I decided on an encounter reaction roll, as parley in 1e AD&D initiates one, the bard had a +15% modifier for charisma,I gave a +10% modifier for surrendering, and a +5% modifier as the druid was indeed testing them, and they made it right to his doorstep undetected. Pretty boss.

He rolled a positive result, congratulated them, mounted a giant hornet, and told them to follow him. He took out a small rod with a wooden sphere at the end, stuck it into a small sack, and when it came out the sphere was swarming with crawling, luminescent insects. He used this like a torch as they flew to the tree. The Tree was enormous, nurtured by the druids, it had small houses on the sides of the main trunk and a huge crook in the branches where they conducted their ceremonies. They had made it. All six (the three PCs and 3 NPCs) climbed up to the top, where they saw 28 white clad druids, 16 in ettercap masks, 8 in dragonne masks, and 4 in marsh dragon masks (these druids worship monster idols, the main coven in the city worships animal idols and wears animal masks). One druid stands above them all

In the middle of the crook is a creature with a lion body, a tail, and three heads, each with a hood connected to a silver chain, the chains going back to three white clad druids. The creature is a chimera, the holy beast of the monster cult druid coven. The party has to decide what to do, they were to locate the coven and gather information, then report back. They will have to decide how to proceed. They managed to get there without using any magic or betraying their mission, so they have to decide to continue to be stealthy or to speak out

There is a ceremony for the initiates. It involves the chimera, if the party passes they are invited into the coven. Then they will have to decide to betray the coven, or to turn against the coven that sent them. Or to wait it out and gather information. They are clearly outnumbered, so they can’t just shoot it out, and they are starting to wonder who is in the wrong, the coven that sent them or the coven they are trying to join. It’s delicious, they don’t know what to do yet, but they are super stoked to figure it out. Peak D&D!

What impressed me about this session was that it was “about” the Druid PC, and he was helpful, but not decisive, nor did the other’s contributions not matter. The party bard decided to speak to the tortles, and came up with the plan to bag the giant alligator. The party Fighter/Warlock secured the plants first, and came up with the idea to douse the torches. The party druid did contribute with class abilities (knowing about the giant alligator, and knowing about the plant) but also through cleverness, he surmised that the giant hornets might not like smoke and fire, and that they should burn reeds to get them to leave.

One of the things I love most about role playing games is that PCs are a unique combination of their stats and their player. 1e encourages the players to not rely exclusively on their stats, and to use their abilities in innovative ways. Their motivation is lethality, the game is very dangerous, if you don’t get creative there are situations you can’t beat. And even if you are in a combat situation, success is not guaranteed without guile. In AD&D my players have to be smart to survive, even with magic available it can be challenging. These sessions were loved by the players, they love “beating” the challenges on their own. 

The next session will be a blast, I’ll report on it too.

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