Monday, November 30, 2020

 

Powergaming in D&D - A Rumination



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ranger Danger

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

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

S:18/90

I:17

W:17

D:17

C:18

Ch:18

For real. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of the Statistics

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

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

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

They run a combat focused version of D&D

They “soften” the game to avoid regular deaths 

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

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

But people don’t run it that way. 

Let me give an example, then a list.

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

1. No heavy armor so AC is worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Allow henchmen without using loyalty rules

6 Allow the use of spells but ignore material component restrictions

7 Allow them to carry tons of stuff without encumbrance restrictions

8 Allow them to carry “endless” arrows or torches

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

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

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

12 Don’t use morale rules

13 Don’t use grappling and overbearing rules*

14 Place magic items rather than rolling for them

15 Ignore alignment restrictions on classes who have them

16 Ignore weapons restrictions on classes that have them

17 Use the same monsters over and over

18 Ignore the PCs reputations in the game world

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

20 Ignore class limits on treasure/adventuring

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

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

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

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

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

Mechanics

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

There are a multitude of examples:

A. Creatures that can only be hit by magic weapons 

B. Creatures with psionics 

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

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

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

F. Paralysis

G. Petrification

H. Energy drain

I. No save spells and effects 

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

K. Creatures with multiple attacks 

L. Auto-hit on stunned/helpless creatures

M. Traps

N. Assassination

O. AOE spells

P. Unbalanced encounter tables

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

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

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

Boom.

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

The list is really quite long. 

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

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

Skilled play.

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

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

Everyone is equal in death. 







Sunday, November 29, 2020


Organic Campaign Development in Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics.

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

They were stoked to find this all out.

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

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

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

D&D, it’s an adventure!

 


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Win win.

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

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

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

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

“What do you tell them?” I asked. 

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

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

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

The party assassin then decided to go for broke:

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

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

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

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

That’s where we broke today. 

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2020

 

Risk/Reward Mechanics and Dungeons and Dragons - Three Cases  



Image by Yuankai Li


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

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

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

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

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

Consulting the warlock/sage

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

Bargaining with the storm giant 

Risking the destruction of the axe

Completing the task for the giant

Payment to the warlock for enchanting the axe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding, visiting and paying sages (time and gold)

Agreeing to a job for the guild to pay for information

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

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

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

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

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

So I came up with a shortcut. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next session they are going to have their fight.

On one side:

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

On the other:

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

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

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

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

Game on!


Monday, November 2, 2020

The DM as Storyteller versus the DM as Referee - a Meditation



I have recently seen some discussion about the idea of the ref massaging the gameplay results to “make things more dramatic”, or to “give a player a break” and that sort of thing. I don’t do this in D&D. I’ve played in D&D games where this was done, where the ref took it upon themselves to control the story beats and the tension, and tried to maximize our “fun” at the table.  

I get the appeal. When a session is not going the way you expected, and you just KNOW there is a more interesting way it could play out. There is a STRONG temptation to muck about with things. When someone is about to lose a treasured character, follower or item, when the players are walking over their opposition and appear unchallenged, when a “far too powerful” magic item appears on a treasure list, when a random encounter appears that the party might not be able to handle, etc, etc, etc.

So I regularly see advice given to refs to increase or decrease monster HP on the fly to keep the fight going or end it sooner, or to give a player a non-lethal consequence to keep their character in the game, that sort of thing.

I know there are games with sophisticated built in narrative mechanics for managing all of this, and I would recommend them to you. But I think running D&D this way can cause some problems. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but that it might be worth some consideration.

Narrative Consequentialism

There are a number of reasons why I think that manipulating the game this way can be a bad idea.in D&D.

1. Sense of achievement. When you muck about with a game like this, sooner or later your players catch on. They may notice that the same attack works differently, that you always seem to remember a rule that helps at the last minute, or for some reason every session has the same “story beats”, e.g. initial encounter, small setback, small success, big setback, final conflict and win. However it happens, sooner or later the players KNOW you are manipulating things in their favor. This robs the player of their sense of accomplishment, as they now wonder if their ideas and actions are what won the day, or was it DM fiat? 

2. Agency. It has been said by others and said more eloquently, but the idea is simple, if you make a monster “last a bit longer” to make a fight challenging you are robbing the PCs of their agency, the choices they made created the advantages, when you neutralize them you are also invalidating their choices. It is uniquely deflating to a player to think that the prep they engage in, the planning, the choices, are really irrelevant as the DM won’t let you fail. 

3. Unfairness. For better or for worse, if the ref can change whatever they want, and soften or harden a result, prevent a death or cause it, etc, etc, if they are making that decision, rather than the dice or the rules, there is a vector for bias, favoritism, unfairness, etc. Because players often won’t know the details of how it is done it is often possible for this to go on for a long time before being noticed, but it is important to the players that the ref doesn’t seem to favor any one of them over the other. 

4. Tactical Challenges. When you treat monster HP as a sliding scale, when you adjust things on the fly all the time then the game world becomes impermanent and variable, unpredictable in a significant fashion. Some aspects of game play will always be unpredictable, due to lack of knowledge and randomness, but the game world should have knowable regularities, and the lack of these can make things less immersive and less enjoyable. How can players learn and get better unless the game world has some sort of independence and regularity?

5. Dissent. What happens when the DM’s chosen story beat or climax or narrative trigger is not to a player’s liking? In some games there are rules to set these things, so the ref can point to the rules to show fairness and appropriateness. But in D&D there are no rules about whether or not to give a PC a break, to make things easier or harder, etc. So it’s up to the ref, and what happens if a player or players doesn’t like the way the ref chooses to structure the narrative? You can of course rely on some form of negotiation for that, but, again, the game has no mechanism for that, so it is inviting a lot of time consuming discussion in certain cases.

6. Burden on the Ref. This is in fact my number 1 reason why I don’t do this, it’s far too much work for the ref. In addition to role playing EVERYONE but the characters, creating the whole world setting, and coming up with adventure hooks, monitoring level progress, etc, etc, etc. the ref is now expected to manage, monitor and manipulate story beats, conclusions and outcomes? MADNESS! One of the points of leaving HP alone and accepting dice rolls, etc, is to take the burden off the ref. 

7. Responsibility. The number 2 reason I don’t suggested doing this in D&D is that once you do this, then any result that occurs is in part, the ref’s responsibility. When a PC dies IMC it is due to the decisions of the player, the environment and the luck of the dice. When a PC dies in a D&D game where the ref manipulates mechanics and dice results to achieve a particular result, then any result is in part their responsibility. 

Look at it this way, let’s say DM X runs a game where they feel that it is their job to decide when a death “sticks” or a negative consequence becomes a positive one, etc. And let’s say character A is in a life or death situation and the ref saves them in some way, because it wouldn’t be a dramatic, meaningful way to die, and so instead they live. And in another case character B is in a life or death situation and the ref doesn’t help them out, as in this case it makes the story more “tragic” to have one of the PCs die. 

It isn’t hard to see how player B might find this unsatisfying. In short, ANY CHARACTER DEATH in a game like this is the ref’s responsibility, as they have established that they have the power to save any PC, so if they don’t, they are choosing to not exercise that power. Once you decide that you can change anything, then everything is your responsibility. This is an incredibly unfair burden to put on your referee. I don’t want to be responsible for either saving everyone or choosing who dies. And I don’t think D&D is particularly exciting when those decisions are given up to group vote. 

8. Immersion. I know this varies for individuals, but for some people, and I’m certainly one of them, knowing there are things in the game that the ref doesn’t change, that stand even if the ref might want otherwise, that makes the game more immersive for me. Why? Because in real life there are things beyond your control, so to whatever extent the game mirrors this sort of lack of control, it gives the environment an immersive feeling. In short, knowing the ref can change whatever they want makes the game push back less, and pushing back against your PC is one way the game world gains some reality.


Letting it Stand

The longer I’m on Twitter the more I see discussions of precisely these issues. People complaining that their ref let a PC die, or didn’t let a PC succeed. Or a ref always ends fights fast so they aren’t a challenge, or makes them drag out too long. Or every adventure follows the same beats. Why put that burden on a ref, why not let the game decide?

There is a remarkable power to learning to accommodate and improvise to handle an undesired or unintuitive result. So the dice say that the ogre dies quickly, making the encounter “too easy”. Rather than messing with the dice to make the encounter harder, let it be easy. Then the PCs get confident, and walk into their next fight cocky, and get their clocks cleaned. I know it may sound like a truism, but it all works out.

I am currently in the fourth consecutive session where my PCs in our home game are rolling hot. It happens sometimes. So they have had a lot of success lately. There is always the temptation to beef up the opposition, or say they had the right defense, or save them somehow, because its TOO EASY. But I know better, the dice are a fickle mistress, and sooner or later they will deal up bad news. Nothing lasts forever. But if you let it happen the game will feel right, your players will get the experience of being up against things that push back, and will get the satisfying experience of seeing their actions make a difference, rather than having the ref change things to help them out.

Of course, YMMV. Perhaps you prefer it if every adventure follows similar beats, and if the worse consequences are blunted somewhat. I won’t judge anyone’s fun. But for D&D I think that what you gain from not messing around with things in play far outweighs what you lose. And I think that running a game like D&D in a way that requires you to make these in game adjustments to maintain some sort of narrative structure produces a huge logistical and ethical burden on the ref that is better left to the game mechanics. 


Telling a Story in D&D Another week, another Twitter drama. The TTRPG Twitter space has become so unhinged that people can express opini...