Tuesday, September 20, 2022

D&D Reduced to Just Three Mechanics

How weird does D&D 5E get if you strip it down to just three mechanics? 

I am talking about a Lasers and Feelings-style one-page RPG, with just three mechanics, all drawn from my grand list of D&D 5E mechanics. I rolled randomly, and these were my results.

  • 28 Feats and Boons
  • 15 Conditions and Exhaustion
  • 49 Proficiencies (Armor, Tool, Weapon, Skill, Saving Throw)

OK, not as weird as I feared.

Proficiencies can be gained through advancement, but most of them are things characters get at character creation. I think of this as a loadout mechanic. 

Conditions and exhaustion are complications and drawbacks. Perhaps in this game there is no HP, wounds, or death system; characters simply acquire conditions until they are fully out of danger, or until those conditions pile up such that they are incapacitated and out of action.

Feats and boons are methods of advancement. Clearly we’re dealing with a classless system. Rather than more HP or spell slots, feats and boons tie into the proficiencies, improving or building upon them in some way.

Rogue-Like Dungeon Delver

This is a rogue-like dungeon-delver. You are a dungeon raid manager, who assembles teams of junior adventurers to raid a dungeon. You start with a pool of meeple adventurers. You get a bunch of hirelings with one random proficiency, a handful of henchmen with two random proficiencies, and a few heroes with three random proficiencies. 

You assess the dangers of the next dungeon in some structured fashion (maybe a "20 questions" game). You then pick a team based on the proficiencies you think will be most useful in meeting that challenge. This game would require some testing to ensure the player can anticipate what tools are right for the job. Proficiency in constitution saving throws is clear for tackling a dungeon full of monsters that cause the poisoned condition. Other proficiencies are less obvious in their application. 

The more accurate your assessments, the more successful your delve is, and the more feats and boons the adventurers earn after they come back. If your guesses were off the mark, they come back with various conditions or levels of exhaustion (if they come back at all). If this happens, they’re unavailable for one or more subsequent dungeon raids, and your pool of options is smaller for those explorations.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Charmed Guard

Previously: Dealing with Evil Adventurers

A typical scenario in fantasy TTRPGs: low-level PCs need to gain entry to the palace. The guard will not let them in. The PCs use some minor enchantment magic to get past the guard. The guard is later confronted by their incredulous superior. The superior decides this is some kind of inexplicable lapse in judgment from the previously reliable guard, and punishes them accordingly. The PCs chortle at the chaos they've sown and move on.

DMs tend to treat NPCs as rubes unaware that magic exists. And some number of rube NPCs is probably a good idea. Commoners, tradesfolk, and castle guards are not going to be proficient in Arcana or know the ins and outs of specific spells. But with the exception of explicitly low-magic settings, regular people would be very aware that when something really weird happens, magic should be considered as a possible explanation. And organizations should respond in a way that demonstrates this awareness, so that the DM can create credible challenges for the PCs.

When something really bizarre happens, or someone does something completely out of character, NPCs should seek to gather as much information as they can. Outsiders will always be scrutinized because they have a short track record, especially if they are ostentatious or conspicuous adventuring PCs (heavily armed, magic-wielding groups usually including non-local non-humans should almost always be assumed to be conspicuous unless they are going to considerable lengths to be inconspicuous). PCs will be, at best, asked many questions and watched. At worst, they may face all kinds of harassment and scrutiny just for being people reasonably capable of disrupting normal life.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Dealing with Evil Adventurers

Adventurers are generally a positive force for society. But those who don't have society's best interest at heart pose a serious danger. 

A community threatened by adventurers reacts the same as a community threatened by monsters. It seeks to endure, survive, and prevent recurrence. Villagers will avoid confronting murder-hobo adventurers directly once they've demonstrated they're more powerful than ordinary bandits. The villagers will flee and disperse. But they will also remember everything they learned about the PCs; how they looked, what they said, where they came from. If they can grab a scrap of clothing or spent ammunition, it might be enough to  use later to clue a diviner into the person's identity and whereabouts.

Adventurer Insurance

Merchants, landowners, and others with sufficient wealth band together in mutual protection insurance groups. Everyone in the group pays a fixed amount yearly, and if one of them was robbed by adventurers, the group uses the fund to hire their own adventurers to find the criminals. The group publishes the names of fund participants in newspapers (or equivalent means of dissemination) to notify adventurers that it would be a bad idea to rob them. 

Charitable associations extend this protection to those who can't afford to form their own associations. These groups share information to improve divination and early identification efforts. In a high magic setting, particularly reckless adventurers would eventually find themselves the subject of repeated scry-and-die attempts, or even sleep deprivation attritional assassination by a warlock with the Dream spell.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Pursuit of the Perfect Statblock

What’s the best way to stat a D&D monster? 

This was an easy question in early editions of the game. Monsters composed of HD, HP, AC, attack, and morale could fit on a single line of text – short enough to lurk in an inline parenthetical.

As with many aspects of the game, the rules detail increased with each edition, peaking with 3.5E’s multi-page stat blocks, where monsters had complex layers of damage resistance, skills, and spell-like abilities. These monsters mostly followed the same skill and feat tree progression as characters. Does that goblin really have the 8 ranks in Basket Weaving required to access the Marsh Master feat and perform that Reed Flurry attack? Please show your work, DM.

D&D 5E is… better, but not great. Eight years in, and the game is still trying to solve this issue, recently dropping spell lists from monster stat blocks in its official content. While I applaud a move toward simplification, the output is still far from what I would call a table-use-optimized game tool.

Various rules-light D&D games seek to return to the simplicity of the early D&D model. Many of them condense the stat block down to a B/X-equivalent parenthetical. An example that feels like a compelling blend of parsimony and evocation is the approach in the Ultraviolet Grasslands. Inline entries are presented as – for example – Hunting scorpion dogs (L3, venomous). These entries provide enough information to “arm” the creature for an encounter, without disrupting the diegetic language of the entry with excessive technical details.

Hunting Scorpion Dogs

Of course, it’s a little too good to be true. Ultraviolet Grasslands “Lx” notation refers to a table where the L number translates into five stat categories. Even rules-light games want more nuance than HD alone would create (where every 3HD monster would essentially be the same, plus whatever mechanical weight the adjectives can capture). 

I also admire the elegance of Prismatic Wasteland’s approach. This still requires an appeal to an outside statblock, but removes that issue from the system-selection screen. Obviously this can’t model something truly weird or bespoke, but it’s not supposed to. It’s great, possibly the best, for anything that isn’t too weird, and is working in some kind of grokkable vanilla fantasy vernacular. 

Neverland is another example that I quite like. This product is 5E-compatible, but its statblocks simply drop much of the bulky language and situational rules detail that WotC’s house style includes. For my 5E-compatible adventure Terrible Trouble at Rude River, I attempted to emulate the Neverland style in the entries. I plan to iterate on this further if I make more 5E-compatible products.

For my Tenfootpole contest entry, Gravestone Deep, I went with more of a B/X style, but wasn’t satisfied with the final form. Special abilities or tactics push against the brevity of the B/X format. I want to take another, more deliberate swing at B/X style stats for the next project I do.

My dream – possibly unattainable – is a statline that looks something like that Ultraviolet Grasslands line, but has some intuitive, natural extrapolation to a moderately complex statblock without requiring a table lookup or other elaboration. Some kind of greater information density that gives mechanical weight to the adjectives. Time will tell if we find it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

DM Stands for Diegesis Master

“I get all my best ideas from my players!” I’ve seen it many times as a success story or GMing tip. For example, a player asks if there is a secret door in the villain’s hideout. The DM thinks to themself “there wasn’t… but, that’s a great idea, there sure is now!”

Many games (for example, various PBtA systems) give players a specific ability to introduce fictional game elements. This can be anything from limited framing information, to facts at the very core of the fiction – in Brindlewood Bay, for example, the mechanics of the game allow the players to come up with the solution to the mystery (right or wrong).

Locked in the Dungeon 

But what about games where players have minimal or zero formal agency to shape the fictional environment, beyond their character’s ability to change the world in-fiction? This is where I wince when I see “use your players’ ideas” deployed as advice without qualification.

The danger of grabbing those great player ideas and immediately incorporating them in the game is that it interrupts the information exchange of the standard gameplay loop. The gameplay loop in D&D is as follows: the DM describes a scenario; players describe how their characters want to engage with that scenario; and the DM (plus the dice, as required) adjudicates and relates what happens next.

When a player asks what is in the treasure chest, and the DM says “I don’t know, why don’t YOU tell me what you think is in the treasure chest?” the loop has been disrupted. Many players (not all, but many) will immediately feel as if the shared investment in a consistent, understandable world has been broken. In a game where they are invited to posit that anything might happen, nothing that happens really matters.

There Are Two DMs Inside You

That sounds harsh. But this does not mean DMs should not use player ideas. I use them all the time. Players are a wonderful source of ideas. But I believe they should be saved for after the session, and used as fuel for the planning DM only. 

If players’ ideas are added to the game immediately, by fiat of the DM-as-adjudicator of the action, the DM is pulling back the curtain and spoiling the shared fiction. They are cheapening prep and erodeing verisimilitude.

Employing blorb principles or a similar information hierarchy is a good way of formalizing this approach and ensuring that you're scrupulous when it is time to patch, which is true even if you're best known for game systems that do formally incorporate player input. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What It Means to Teach Something

I have many small problems with D&D 5E. But they are minor problems. I can fix these things through good DM techniques, or superior prep, or hacks. And I don’t begrudge a game minor problems. Maybe the things I don't like may be features, not bugs, for other players. 

I only have one big problem with 5E: It’s difficult to teach to new players. 

When you teach something, you endorse it. The act of teaching includes implicit statements like “this game is worth the learning curve” and “you should spend your time learning this game, instead of another game.” 

Dungeon Teacher

And those are endorsements I’m not really willing to make, relative to the many other TTRPGs that boast superior design, or a lower barrier to entry for new players. 

My quantum character sheet was my attempt to bend 5E toward a true pick-up-and-play game. And even that is really more of a vaguely 5E-compliant hack than a true compliment to 5E itself. 

Maybe I’ll get there someday. Until then, I just have to be honest with players that 5E is a compromise – a good game, and one I enjoy running, but not what I would reach for first if they just asked me “what should I really learn how to play?”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Broken Wheel Cosmology: Comic Gods

After watching Thor: Love and Thunder in July, my mind returned to RPGs and Broken Wheel Cosmology. The following is limited to RPG worldbuilding, and is not a general review, nor is it written with deep familiarity of the cosmology of Marvel Comics.*

Briefly, and without spoilers, the premise is that a cursed, symbiotic sword (very D&D) drives the antagonist, Gorr the God Butcher, into a god-killing rampage. Thor and his companions pursue Gorr, traveling to strange worlds and risking their lives to stop his mad quest.

What does it take to kill a god? 

Much is made of the Necrosword’s ability to kill gods, but… that’s hardly a unique quality within the Marvel movies. Indeed, in summarizing the (considerable) backstory of the three previous Thor movies and the various related Marvel properties, the film alludes to Thor’s brother, father, and sister – all gods – dying by various means.

Presumably this just means the Necrosword is just unusually good at killing gods… but it drains a lot of the mythic cache from the idea of a god-killing weapon.

An AI-generated image of Thor

What do gods need from their worshippers?

The movie’s prologue is Gorr’s inciting incident. His prayers to his god Rapu are ignored, and his daughter dies. Soon thereafter, he meets Rapu, who is indifferent to Gorr’s suffering, even when Gorr tells him that Gorr himself is the last of Rapu’s followers; Rapu dismissively says something to the effect that more will follow, and tries to kill Gorr.

Pretty strange! I’ve always assumed that in most fantastic cosmologies, the gods have some practical need of worship; either broad appeal among many mortals, or sustained worship from an intensely devoted minority cult. In T:L&T logic, why have worshipers at all?

Why worship gods at all? 

The other side of the coin is, of course, why do people care about the gods? The gods presented in T:L&T are, at best, an indifferent and ineffectual aristocratic class; at worst, they’re actively parasitic. The film seems to vaguely imply that there are good gods out there, but the movie doesn’t show them. Besides Gorr’s prologue, the most detailed look at the gods in the film is a visit to Omnipotence City, where the assembly of the divine is more concerned with orgies than stopping Gorr.

In the real world, the inherent unknowability of the spiritual, and the resulting need for faith, mediates human relationships to the divine.

But in a world where ordinary beings can go see the gods at work – where they are knowable – why worship them? 

The movie grapples with this question… briefly. In one of the most compelling scenes, Gorr interrogates Valkyrie, observing that her sister… valkyries were sent to die in battle at the whims of the gods. It's a good scene, but the heroes never make an affirmative case for the gods to counteract Gorr’s criticism.

What about D&D? The Marvel universe (cinematic or otherwise) is a good analogy for the world of D&D because they’re both kitchen sink assemblies from many different sources. Thor is mighty because he is a god, but he encounters aliens, mutants, magicians, and monsters who are as strong or stronger than he. Is there anything special about a “god” in such a world, or is this a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” situation? We should ask the same question in fantastic RPG worlds.

*I appreciate that I am probably only scratching the surface of the Marvel cosmology as developed in the comic books. Elaboration from those more knowledgeable is welcome.

D&D Reduced to Just Three Mechanics

How weird does D&D 5E get if you strip it down to just three mechanics?  I am talking about a Lasers and Feelings-style one-page RPG, wi...