Sunday, October 30, 2016

It's All About the Crits: Critical Successes and Failures

When you roll a 1, something bad happens; when you roll a 20 something good happens. It is a simple roll in many systems that can be the curse or bane of players and GMs. Today we're going to be discussing it in D&D 5E, however this rule applies lots of places.

Lets get some terminology out of the way first. An attack roll is made when a creature attempts to hit a target using a weapon (which could a natural, like a fist or claw) to hit a target. A saving throw is a a creature trying to resist or avoid an effect of something like a spell or a trap. A skill check is used when a creatures applies its knowledge to answer a question or its skill to perform a task.  For our purposes, this creature will be a player character.

For attack rolls, a 20 deals double damage dice, and a 1 misses in 5E RAW. These two effects nearly cancel each other out over the long haul, although not perfectly (math left as an exercise for the reader).  Every PC on every attack has the same change of a critical failure (miss) or a critical hit. This does a nice job of reflecting the crazy randomness and risk in a battle. A couple of crits one way or the either can results in an unexpected outcome.

Now, let us insert the favorite houserule that something worse than a miss happens on a critical fail.  In many cases, a significant percentage (if not all) of these critical failures ends your turn. These failures include things like dropping your weapon or clumsily falling down. Here's where an unintended consequence pops up. A level 1 character gets to attack once. A level 20 fighter gets to attack 4 times.  Because every attack has the same chance of a critical fail, the level 20 fighter is 4 times more likely to have  critical failure during their turn than a level 1 noob. Even worse, is that a critical failure may cost the level 20 fighter some of their subsequent attacks during the turn.  It makes the level 20 fighter look like a complete clown at fighting.

For skill checks, there are no critical failures or success in 5E. Let's assume once again we insert the critical failure / success houserule. First our level 1 noob untrained in athletics wants to jump onto the roof of a house DC 25. Does out noob succeed with a 20+0 as if they had all the skill of a level 20 fighter maxed out in acrobatics? How about if that fighter has a +10 in acrobatics and rolls a 1 tying his shoes DC 1? Does that means he fails? The bottom line is that critical failures and successes don't seem to fit, because they make the unskilled perform unrealistic tasks and they make highly trained characters fail at the mundane. Sure, the GM can try to moderate this, but ultimately the base rule doesn't fit, because it breaks the assumptions of what "being skilled" means.

Lets try one more -- the saving throw. Once again, 5E doesn't have critical fails or critical successes. Lets add them. Again, the level 20 maxed dex fighter trips jumps into the fireball, and the level 1 noob jumps behind the fighter, does a tuck and roll over the nearby wall, and takes cover. Clearly we aren't doing any better with the realism with this than we did with the skills.

Ack! So that means we don't use our favorite houserule? What ever shall we do to get our failures? I share this sentiment. Failure is the best part of the games. Most of the stories told and retold (Aoefel and the acid pit) revolve around failures, not successes. From my playbook, here are a few options:

  • Use GM intrusion style mechanics from the Cypher system. For 5E, it could look something like this:
    • On a roll of any one, the GM can make an intrusion i.e. add a complication to the scenario.
    • If the player doesn't accept, they have to give a hero point back to the GM. If the player has no hero points, they have to accept.
    • On an accepted intrusion, the player receives two d6 dice called hero points. The player then immediately hands one of the 2 d6 dice to another player and gives a reason for doing so.
    • In the future these hero points can be added to any roll (limit of 1 to a roll) before its outcome is known.
    • A player can only have as many hero points as their proficinecy bonus.
  • Allow crit fails on attacks only, and only on the last attack in the attack action. This gives everyone an equal chance of a turn-ending effect without the higher level classes losing all of their extra attacks.
  • Just play with RAW and use the plot to set up your own critical failures. Put the players in a scenario where they can fail and don't give them limited or complex information to figure out what will happen.
So those are my thoughts on critical fails, critical successes, and 5E. Have other thoughts? Drop me a message on twitter @PinkDiceGM.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Stern Warning

Dreden slammed his fist against the table. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!"

"Yes," said the two hobgoblin warriors who faced him across table.

"You cannot go above ground. We cannot be discovered, " said Dreden, his brow furrowed so that it was nearly touching his nose. "This mission will fail if you disobey."

"Yes, commander," the two repeated, one slightly before the other.

Dreden sat into the chair, lumber creaking under his muscular hobgoblin physique. The two warriors seemed fidgity. It was the white cloaks and the white helmets. They were too bright, too clean, and too civilized when they were above ground.

"Now what is the status of the tunnels?" Dreden spoke slowly. His face was normal again.

"The southern tunnel is slow going. There is bedrock under the river." said one warrior.

"The northern tunnel is a day ahead, so far as we can tell, " said the other.

Dreden frowned. "Escort Gitrid to the forward camp so she can make the assessment. We don't want any mistakes."

"Yes, sir", replied the warrior. "We're just being cautious after the first tunnel flooded."

Dreden leaned forward. "I can respect that. We lost too many to the first mistake. Still get Gitrid to help you. She bores me, she drinks too much, and I don't care for her company. Let her do something useful."

The warrior nodded.

"And check back at the end of a fortnight." Dreden paused while the warrior look confused. "The battle plans will be ready by then, and I want you to report back then. Now GO!"

The two slammed their arms to their chests and spun with a quick exit.

Dredn returned to pouring over his maps, scratching at his side. These white cloaks did seem, unnatural.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Numeneric Thoughts: Flying Things

Some of the things that fly in the Ninth World:

  • There is a winged creature with feathers, webbed feet and a large circular mouth. This so-called suckler bird likes to land on large pieces of shiney metal and glass and suck the debris off it.  A large flock of them can clean all the windows in a good sized town in a day. The young, however, have been know to attach to eyeglasses, mostly just frightening the wearer.
  • Numenera hunters near Beoth reported disturbing some sort of nest before leaving town.  A week later small flying disks appeared, cutting through timbers of local buildings. The residents were able to take shelter in stone buildings after one resident was killed, but are scared to go outside.
  • There is a four-legged animal in the Wyr river valley that can spread its limbs and glide.  The 3 foot creature has generally been content with swooping down and grabbing live food from the river, but recently it has taken to snatching livestock and small animals in settlements near the river.
  • Stirthal is home to a "wandering spirit from the sky". When someone is hurt on the streets of the town, a bright red machine drops out of the sky and works to repair their wounds. It seems to speak a foriegn language of clicks, chirps, and screeches. After it completes, it flies off into the sky and disappears again. 
  • There is an insect swarm in the Pytharon Empire that has been attacking those carrying numenera recovered from a local ruin. The victims are found dissected with not a drip of blood nearby.
  • There is a large animal in the Salted Marshes that can take to the air despite its large size.  Travelers said they have seen it as a bright streak in the sky at night.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Numenera Thoughts: The Sky

A few thoughts concerning the sky in the Ninth World:
  • A man in Uxphon has found a Numenera in the mountains. For 10 shins he will let you point it at the sky on a dark night where is shows large invisible cities floating in the sky.
  • In Navarene, several people have found objects left behind by a lumbering automaton that rambles quickly across the land. Friends and neighbors described the objects as large eggs. One witness said that when activated they glow crimson. A short time after, those that had the object were found burnt to death after a bright flash from the sky.
  • A large forest of trees stands outside of Dobrin, metallic with large metal leaves that point toward the sky.  On the first day of summer and the first day of winter, the sky above them pops and crackles with lightning. Anything above the forest is burnt into dust.
  • Near Mt Jaspar there is a machine in the sky that flies from a fixed spot out past the Deeplight and back every week, as if on an invisible cable. At night its light flicker and during the day it casts an unnatural shadow on the ground. No one know what the bronze-colored machine does.
  • In Draolis, there has been recent reports of small red spheres falling from the sky. A day after landing, a purplish worm-like creature, perhaps 12 cm in lenght wriggles out and crawls into the ground. All attempts to catch one of the worms has been useless, since the worms seems to be able to just "melt" right though anything.
  • In the forest south of Sere Marica a bright spot of light appears in the sky, seeming to originate from a source of the beam in the woods. No one has been able to discover where it comes from or what it does.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Numeneric Thoughts: More Trees

A few more thoughts related to trees in the Ninth World:

  • There is a remote village, south of the Cloudcrystal Sky Fields, where the trees seems to change color randomly. When the trees turn red, the residents close up their houses and refuse to go outside.
  • Just outside of Hamuth, there is an strange old man who grows a garden of trees. If you go near the trees at night, the trees will glow and chitter, and the old man comes out and chases you off with a numenera that gives off a blinding bright light.
  • A guide in Bodrov warned me just the other day that if I get lost in the Westwood to seek out trees with triangle leaves. He says if you tap them, they produce clear water suitable to drink with an odd smells that keeps danger away,
  • In Charmonde, wealthier citizens started planting a new fractal-leaved tree that were all the rage. There is a uproar at the moment: the trees are slowly moving a few inches each night and seem to all be leaving the city.
  • Numenera hunters in the Ba-Adenu Forest are looking for a quivering orange tree worth its weight in gold. If planted as a seedling on a grave, it will grow faces of the dead in the bark and they talk, seeming knowing things that only the dead below should know.
  • In the barren lands around Hidden Naresh, a rare tree of stone grows. When it flowers and fruits, the resulting stone apples seem to stay toasty and warm forever. Just don't drop them -- if they crack open anyone nearby is turned to stone. Maybe they even start to grow into a new tree.
  • There is a legend of peoples that wander in the plains of a man who collects the dead. He drives a wagon made of living flesh pulled by 8 stout walking trees.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Numeneric Thoughts: Trees

A few thoughts related to trees in the Ninth World:

  • In the Westwood, there is a tree that grows square paper-like leaves with holes in them. When you place one of the leaves in a slot in the trunk, the leaves change color randomly and the tree make artificial beeping noises. 
  • In Navarene, 3 hours walk south of the Amber Monolith, there is a tree that grows a new trunk each year, always in a slightly different direction, straight, always exactly the same length, 17 meters. The locals reckon  that it is 78 years old, since there are 78 trunks coming out in random directs. It is running out of space for new trunks.
  • There is a tree that grows straight up near Stirthal with no visible leaves or branches. It is so impossibly tall that the top is no longer visible. The local loggers *really* want to cut is down, but the there is no telling which way would fall
  • In the Beyond, near White Lake, there are rumors of a tree whose leaves sing when the breeze blows a certain way. A local seer claims that the music allows him to see the future.
  • There is a forest in the middle of the plains that grows with red trunks, limbs, and branches with purple leaves. Animals never go there. Plants do not grow near the trees. Travelers are told not to stop there, for many have disappeared.
  • Druisians recently been cut off from trade. The wagon leads have passed back stories of trees near the trails moving to block their path.
  • Half way between Far Brohn and Aian, there is a village called Pittance. There the priest claims that the village is protected from a great danger by a huge tree that grows near the center of town. The tree has recently started to die and misfortunes are befalling the inhabitants near the edge of town.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Fixing Necromancers

Necromancers are great, except when you're in a party with one with a hoard of undead. 25 Minutes after initiative starts you get to take your turn after all of the skeletons and zombies have done their thing. For this reason, I limit a player to one PC + 2 other combatants in most cases. Sure, you can have 10 zombies following you around, but only two are fighting, because we're not all waiting on the rest to do something.

The problem with this rule is that is really pulls the rug out from under the necromancer. I don't really want to do that. So here is my rewrite to Animate Dead to help fix the problem. The CR derivation used in this new "At Higher Levels" is meant to balance the raw CR increase with the action economy. Time will tell if I got it right.

Replace the "At Higher Levels" text of Animate Dead with this text:

At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you animate or reassert control over stronger undead creatures as given in the table. Each of the creatures must come from a different set of remains as noted in the table.

3Bones / Corpse of a Sm / Med CreatureSkeleton / Zombie (CR 1/4)
4Charred RemainsShadow (CR 1/2)
5Remains of a Disease VictimGhoul (CR 1)
6Bones / Corpse of a Large CreatureMinitaur Skeleton  / Ogre Zombie (CR 2)
7Unmarked graveWill-O-Wisp(CR 2)
8Corpse / Bones of a Full Spellcaster (Cleric, Wizard, etc)Mummy (CR 3)
9Corpse / Skeleton in their own ArmorHelmed Horror (CR 4)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Interesting Encounter: Divide and Conquer

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

It has been a while, but I've finally gotten back around to blogging. This week we're working through a divide and conquer trap scenario.

WARNING: We're going to use a bit of a qunatum ogre in this scenario. A "quantum ogre" is a case where the outcome doesn't depend on the choices that the player makes. The story goes that a PC reaches a tunnel where he can go either left or right. However, wherever the PC goes, he finds an ogre. The ogre is in both places (and not in both places) at once until the PC chooses, then it is placed. Thus the name... quantum ogre.

Start out with a room. In this room, there is a pressure plate in the center of the room. The plate is unremarkable and easily mistaken as part of the normal floor tile design. The second time the plate is activated by stepping on it, it triggers the trap.

The trap simply is 4 walls that fall from the ceiling and two doors that fall in the entrance and exit. They block off the room and divide it into quadrants.  With any luck and bad saves, the party is split apart.

Now comes the quantum ogre part. There is a single exit in each area that requires a specific skill, each belonging to a single member of the party. However, the party member that has the skill isn't in the quadrant. They are in another quadrant. The four quadrants each have a small 3" by 3" hole in the wall that allows adjacent quadrant PCs to talk back and forth. In order for everyone to get out, all 4 skill tests must be passed. The PCs will have to talk each other through the tests.

Now, the beauty of this challenge is that it is a complete roleplay test. The rogue has to try to explain to the wizard how to disable the trap. The wizard has to try to explain to the barbarian how to decipher the runes. The fighters has to explain to the cleric how to get enough leverage to force open the door. The cleric has to explain to the druid how to cast a blessing on the sacred altar. You get the idea. Get creative with the crossover to make it interesting. Give huge bonuses for good roleplay.

This encounter is short and simple to prep, but a great ice breaker for new parties. Use it as a warm up with a new campaign, or for just a change of pace in an old one.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Playing the Really Evil Villain

A woman goes to her brother-in-law's funeral. There she meets a friend of the family, a man that she doesn't know. They talk, they laugh, and the woman finds herself really liking this man. However, at some point she loses track of the man and never gets his name, number, and no one seems to know who he is.  A week later, the woman kills her sister. Why?

If you don't know the answer, it is because most people have a part of their reasoning that discounts certain solutions to problems because they don't make sense. In this case, you might have missed the logic that the woman kills her sister so there will be another funeral, and she can find this man again. This solution seems unreasonable, so most folks can't find their way to it easily.

True evil is like this woman. It doesn't place the same weight on things as we do. What seems completely unreasonable to a normal person, seems like a logical solution to evil. Because most GMs are reasonable people (despite what their players may sometimes think!) they have a hard time bringing evil to the table.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you bring a truly evil NPC into your game:

  1. Evil lacks empathy. Evil doesn't care about any other given person like a reasonable person. They consider others much like a normal person considers an insect just before they stomp on it.
  2. Evil doesn't care about fair. There is no fair fight. There is no line that cannot be crossed. How do they prefer to beat the PCs? With a club while they sleep.
  3. Evil has motivation, often more and stronger motivation that normal folks. They assume their view of the world is shared by others, and they don't want to be an insect under another person's boot.
  4. Evil is often intertwined with vengeance, anger, lust for power, a desire for violence. These other emotions often are weaknesses of the villain.
  5. Evil is often rationalized. There is a good reason they are doing these things in their own mind.
  6. Evil corrupts. Evil will take whatever actions necessary to gain leverage and make others fight their battles. Any good PC or NPC is fair game for evil to turn. This is a good way to introduce a twist into a plot.
  7. Evil isn't stupid. Stupid evil gets caught before it is a threat. Those that survive long enough to become a villain in your story already have enough power, influence, money, and/or intelligence to be a real threat. Play it up.
  8. There is always a bigger evil, and evil folks rarely get along. Evil doesn't necessarily make allies with evil. Those who work for a villain aren't a threat. Those who aren't under the villain's thumb are a threat.
It is a good thing that these things don't come naturally to most folks. We are good GMs. Sometimes, though, we can work to bring a bit of evil into our games.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

5E Starting Gold and Equipment for Higher Levels

The DMG has a rough recommendation for starting gold and equipment for higher levels, but with my groups running one-shots, we wanted to nail it down to level by level. Here's my DMG-inspired table.

Generally I allow equipment to be traded in during character creation for half book value, where applicable. I also, as a GM, offer to make custom magic items for players who can't choose. A list of magical items by rarity can be found here with stats available in the DMG. I also generally allow players to buy healing potions (2d4+2) for 50gp and greater healing potions for 250gp (4d4+4). PHB items are available at book cost at creation. I do not allow other equipment to be purchased except in game.

This is generally based off the "high magic" campaign.

Level Starting Gold Starting Equipment / Magic Items
1 - 160gp  OR Standard starting equipment
2 210gp Standard starting equipment
3 285gp Standard starting equipment
4 365gp Standard starting equipment
5 455gp Standard starting equipment
6 550gp Standard starting equipment, 1 uncommon
7660gp Standard starting equipment, 1 uncommon
8 785gp Standard starting equipment, 2 uncommon
9 915gp Standard starting equipment, 2 uncommon
101200gp Standard starting equipment, 2 uncommon
11 1800gp Standard starting equipment, 2 uncommon, 1 rare
124000gp Standard starting equipment, 2 uncommon, 1 rare
13 7000gp Standard starting equipment, 2 uncommon, 1 rare
14 11000gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 1 rare
15 14500gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 1 rare
16 18000gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 1 rare
17 20000gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 2 rare
1822000gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 2 rare
19 23500gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 2 rare, 1 very rare
2025000gp Standard starting equipment, 3 uncommon, 2 rare, 1 very rare

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

An Analysis of Death Rule Changes in D&D 5E

So after 66 session of me GMing D&D 5E with a party of 6 players, I have zero PC deaths. I have had a few close calls along the way, but no PC deaths. To me, for my game, this seems too low.

Now to be completely fair, my death rules, as I have used them, are not exactly rules as written (RAW). I ignore the instant death rule that basically states that a PC can die instantly if hit by massive damage. I consider it a cheap shot by a GM to kill a PC that way. I also generally don't keep trying to hit PCs while they are down.

So basically my death rules are straight death saves. Roll a d20. Roll a 1 and get 2 failures. Roll a 20 and you are back up with 1 HP. Roll 2 to 9, and you get one failure. Roll 10 to 19 and you get one success. 3 failures makes you dead. 3 successes gets you stabilized. Of course, if you get healed at any point from any source, your are back up too.

My thought was to mirror the instant death rule a little differently to increase the chance of PC death. In my case, I was going to make it so that if a PC gets reduce to zero hp and there is damage left over, they take one failure for that extra damage. With this rule, almost every PC will start with one failure. How does this impact the chance of death?

Now, as a person well versed in math and simulation, I am not one to take a guess and hope it works out. I want to know exactly what the impact is. So to evaluate this change I wrote a quick simulation in Python. Basically, the simulation rolls 5 d20 rolls (in order) and then applies the rules above to see what the outcome is: death, back up, or stabilized. I do this 100,000 times and then see how the numbers fall. These 100,000 rolls take about 5 seconds to calculate on my laptop.

So here are my results:

The normal rules:

  • Die: 44%
  • Stabilize: 36%
  • Back up with 1 HP: 20%

The new rules:

  • Die: 61%
  • Stabilize: 24%
  • Back up with 1 HP: 15%

So, it looks like my rule change will increase the chance of death by less than 50%. That seems about right. Also, this rule change reduces the number of rounds for healing by one round, which also should help. Ultimately, the only way to know for sure if the results will work out well is to play another 66 session and see what my PC death numbers look like then. I think I can do that, if my players agree. It is a sacrifice I am willing to make to test the rule change. 66 more session to GM. Cool.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Gerridan

The gerridan are large intelligent water strider insect folk that live in a hive colony. They are found primarily underground in large water-filled caverns. They avoid all contact with other species.

The gerridan queen fully commands the drones of the hive using telepathic communication. This makes them a very dangerous enemy when angered. Generally, when threatened, the gerridan will use their water casting abilities to isolate the threat and retreat. The one obvious exception to this is when eggs or gerridlings are harmed. This is generally considered an act of war against the hive, and the entire hive will fight to the death.

Gerridan Drone

Large monstrosity, lawful neutral
Armor Class 19 (natural armor)
Hit Points 123 (13d10 +52)
Speed 30ft., climb 30ft., water walk 30ft.
STR 16 (+3) DEX 16 (+3) CON 18 (+4) INT 13 (+1) WIS 14 (+2)  CHA 12(+1)
Senses water sense 120ft. (Can sense any motion in the water within range)
Languages Undercommon (understand only), telepathy
Challenge  estimated 8

Unsleeper: Gerridan do not sleep and can't be put to sleep magically.

Innate Spellcasting: The Gerridan can cast the following spells using Wisdom (DC 13):

  • Water Wall at will with no spell components
  • Watery Sphere 3 times per day

Spider Climb: The gerridan can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.

Water Walk: The gerridan can walk on water as if it were a solid surface.

Glow: Gerridan have glowing patterns in their skin that glow cyan in color for dim light over 15 ft radius.

Sunlight Sensitivity: While in sunlight, the gerridan has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.

Water Web: As an action a gerridan can create a web reaching from the surface of the water within 10 feet to a target within 40 feet. A DC 18 DEX save is required for a target to dodge the web. The web attaches its target to the water surface and anchors it. Water webs do not move with the water surface. A DC 17 STR(Athletics) check is require to break free of a web. The webs ave AC 12, 20 HP, and are vulnerable to fire.

Multiattack: The gerridan makes three attacks, with its sword-like arms

Swordarms. The gerridan can use their sword-like arms to make Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 13 (3d8 + 3) slashing damage.

Gerridan Queen

(same stats as above with following alterations)
Huge monstrosity, lawful neutral
Hit Points 136 (13d12 +52)
Challenge  estimated 10

Hulk: Because of the queen's altered size, she has advantage on all grapple checks and checks to avoid grapples.

Deposit Eggs: Using two actions, the queen can deposit eggs on a solid surface. These eggs will hatch into gerridlings in 2d8 days. Until hatched, the gerridan queen knows the state of the eggs through a telepathic link.

Legendary Actions
Psychic Retribution: If the queen or a member of her hive is harmed (including eggs), the queen may strike out with a psychic surge. The surge is a +8 ranged psionic attack that deals 6d8+3 psychic damage. If sanity rules are in play, it may also deal direct sanity damage. The surge can be activated once per round after any member of her hive is harmed. This does not use the queen's reaction.

Crush: If the queen is harmed, she may as a reaction immediately attempt to crush one enemy within 5 ft. of her. This is a +10 attack that deals 6d8+6 bludgeoning damage on a hit.


Tiny / Small monstrosity, lawful neutral
Armor Class 14 (natural armor)
Hit Points 28 (3d10 +52)
Speed 30ft., climb 30ft., water walk 30ft.
STR 10 (+0) DEX 10 (+0) CON 18 (+4) INT 10 (+0) WIS 8 (-1)  CHA 11(+0)
Senses blindsense 120ft.
Languages telepathy
Challenge  estimated 3

Feed: Gerridlings, when hatched, feed psychically as an action on any creatures within 100 ft using a ranged psionic attack. The victim must make a DC 17 Wisdom save or they take 3d10 pychic damage. This damage can be used to heal the gerridling for an equal number of hit points or can be used to sustain its growth. After 100 hit points of psychic damage have been reserved for growth, the garridling transforms into a gerridan drone as an action taking 1 round.  Gerridlings transform from size tiny to size small when the growth reserve reaches 50 hit points.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Changing Rules: Empirical vs Anecdotal Evidence

Everyone wants a better game. GMs will do many things to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, GMs delve into the role of game designer way too quickly without understanding a simple truth: GMs are not game designers. The two have different objectives. GMs want a fun game with a certain tone. Game designers try to build a system that is fun, but not vulnerable to exploitation and imbalance.

Normally, this is not a big deal. A GM can use experience to make small tweaks to a system to the get the game they want. If it works well, they want to pick it up and use it everywhere. Doing this can often cause more harm than good. As a GM and designer who tweaks my own system, I understand the desire and the dangers and have dealt with them first hand. The biggest alligator lurking in that swamp is the mystery of empirical evidence vs anecdotal evidence.

Evidence is data that contributes to drawing a conclusion. In this case we are talking about evidence for changing / adding / ignoring a rule. When we collect data, usually through actually playing the game, we need to understand that our data is not perfect. Every player carries baggage with them from other experiences, other games. We also do not play our games perfectly. Each person involved has their own state of mind, influenced by the rest of their life, which may or may not be conducive to a good game. Relationships between players may cloud the objectives of play. Our observations during play have this "noise" from all of the temporary conditions associated with the specific instance of the game and game group.

Ultimately this noise means that one observation is likely to be flawed in some way. The only way to get rid of this "noise" is to make many observations over may instances. Taken together these observations allow us to look at how things work as a whole as opposed to a single or few flawed observations. These many observations taken together form significant empirical evidence. 

A single or few flawed observations are called anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately this type of evidence is the most relatable and leads to statements like "It worked fine in my game." and "We never has a problem with it."  Anecdotal evidence, not surprisingly, often comes along with a story of how it worked or didn't work on one occasion. However, because it is all anecdotal, it might not apply to your game. One observation of success might not even apply to the next scenario in the same group.

When making rule changes, it is important to understand the difference between solid empirical evidence and anecdotal evidence. You might have your gaming group that you've played with for years. Based on a single game, you might decide to change a rule. You change it and everything works well. This change based on anecdotal evidence works well because of your group. Pick that same rule up and move it to another group, and it won't work at all. 

The only way to gather solid empirical evidence for game design is playing over a wide variety of groups, with different people, and in different scenarios. This is what a game designers needs to develop a bullet-proof rule set that is impervious to exploitation, min-maxing, and general player mayhem. This is what WoTC did with 5E playtesting, and it clearly shows. And even after thousands upon thousands of playtests, the outcome still wasn't perfect. Achieving perfection in a ruleset is hard. 

I'm not advocating extensive playtesting of every rule change. However, when basing changes on anecdotal evidence, be aware that what works in one group isn't going to work in another, that what works in this scenario isn't going to work in another, that what one player uses well another player will exploit. Share your ideas and lets other consider them, but never assume that your gaming group or your one game session is the gold standard for making rules changes. The world is bigger than that.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Rolling for Contacts: Giving Players More Creative Input in 5E

Like many GMs, I feel my players don't influence the game enough. One of my goals is to always customize the game to fit what the players want. Unfortunately 5E is light on mechanics for this. To start to fix this, I am proposing a new mechanic: Rolling for Contacts.

Contacts are non-combat NPCs that the players have a connection to in order to get help of whatever non-combat form they want. The player gets 1 contact every 4 levels. To gain a contact during the game (not at level up!), they describe an NPC they want to gain as a contact and then the GM rolls a hidden skill check while the party is not in combat. That skill check must be related to the type of contact they wish to gain. For example, a good stealth skill check may gain a member of the local thieves' guild. A good religion check might gain a local cleric that would be a PC's friend. The player, however, gets to describe exactly who their contact is, in whatever level of detail is desired and appropriate.

If they roll a 30, they gain an NPC exactly as they described. However, for rolls less than 30, the contact comes along with "baggage". Baggage is some non-ideal characteristic that this NPC will have that the GM adds on. This can manifest in a number of ways.

With a 20+ roll, maybe the PC's contact doesn't speak common, so only a limited subset of the party can interact with them. Maybe they only have partial knowledge of the answers the PC's seek. Perhaps the contact travels and will only be available for interaction for a short time.

With a 15-19 roll, things become more interesting. Maybe the contact knows more about the PC than the PC has told the party and might let something slip. The contact might have a task they need performed in return for assistance. Maybe the contact has an obvious distrust of the rest of the party. It could be that the contact is not of high enough station to help the party in the way they desire.

With 10-14 roll, maybe the contact has split loyalties, resulting in the answer sought, but additional dangers for the party. The contact now might have a full quest for the party to fulfill to gain the contact's help. Maybe the contact is an enemy of one of the other party members.

Below a 10, however, is the most fun. Now the GM gets to bring in a contact that will actively oppose the party, but may help the party this one time to gain their trust. This contact could become a future villain or just be a general annoyance throughout the game.  These outcomes definitely make the game more interesting.

In all cases, the GM needs to be prepared to improv roleplay of this new contact. This can be challenging, but the advantage is that the NPC is now tied to a player and will be helping in some way. That generates immediate buy-in at the table for whatever emerges, no matter how rough the execution might be.  Of course, this unknown element also introduces additional uncertainty in the plot. This is just part of being a GM. If the biggest step off the plot is one additional NPC, I'd be pretty surprised. Just try to go with it.

I plan on introducing this into my normal D&D adventuring campaign soon, if the players like the idea. I'll share in the future how it turns out. Feel free to give it a try and you game, and share how it turns out.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Handling Traps with Skills in 5E

Here is a quick summary of how to handle traps with skills in 5E. Each step in this feeds the next step.

  1. Passive Perception -- Allows a PC to notice obvious scents (acid vapor), sounds (click), feelings (floor seems suddenly uneven), and sights (is that a tripwire or a spiderweb) that may or may not indicate a trap. Be sure to have them notice things when there isn't a trap too.
  2. Active Perception -- Allows PCs to actively search for other trap clues. This requires a roll and perhaps, an action. Active perception usually does not involve touching anything, except to taste.
  3. Investigation -- Allows a PC to investigate a specific thing that was identified with perception. The player should describe what they do based on the scenario. They may choose to touch and interact with things. This could set off the trap. Investigation, if successful, can determine how the trap works and what the trap does. Some traps have hidden components or components far away that limit the results. Some traps have magical elements that must be deciphered using another check (History or Arcana are likely choices).
  4. Sleight of Hand -- The PC can use information gained through investigation (best) or perception (limited) to attempt to set off or disable the trap. Their actions should be described to determine the outcome of their action.

To support this a trap is defined by:
  • A Reason for the trap. They can be placed to keep someone out, to keep someone in, to kill or to injure, or even as just a natural occurrence (loose rocks in an old tunnel). Make sure the location fits with the reason for the trap, if it is intentional.
  • A Notice DC to (passively) notice the something that could be a trap (tripwire, acid smell, shiny object, brick out of place, etc)
  • A Perception DC to see the trap when actively looking. This should be easier that the Notice DC.
  • An Investigation DC to determine how the trap works and/or what it does. Some information may be unavailable if the parts can't be sensed or are far away.
  • Optionally, an Arcana or History Check DC to descipher magical elements of the trap.
  • A Sleight of Hand DC to disable or set off the trap.
  • The Trigger condition for the trap. This can be a single condition (step on a pressure plate, someone pulls a lever), or a series of conditions, possibly separated in time or space (stepping on the pressure plate twice, or stepping on two separate pressure plates).
  • The Effect or Damage that the trap does, where this effect or damage occurs, and how the target(s) avoid the damage (save DC or attack vs AC).
  • Whether or not the trap Resets, and when it resets (automatically, perhaps after a period of time, or when a lever is pulled)

Trap effects can be combines or layered. For example, one trap could set off another trap. Also a simple trap could have a more complex trap hidden in it, such that the more complex trap is set off when the easier trap is disabled.

Changing D&D: The Game You Want

D&D has changed a lot throughout its history. There is a strong old-school guard there always to remind us that today's D&D was not yesterday's D&D. The transition from 3.x to 4 to 5 has been a long arduous journey for everyone. All of the history, unfortunately, has convinced a lot of people to think they already know D&D. With 5E, things have changed, and I think more than ever, D&D can give a lot more folks the game they want.

Just the other day I was engaged with a Burning Wheel fan where he stated as a fact that D&D is a combat-based XP system and that leveling up with XP only gives combat skills. Really? Unfortunately it is a held over misconception from previous editions. 5E added backgrounds, a new mechanical hook for storytelling, which is clearly a nod to noncombat. There is no reason 5E can't be used as well as any rules-light system for non-combat encounters and character growth. It is true that a significant portion of the book material focuses on combat. However, there is no reason that a significant amount of play also needs to focus on combat. You and your group get decide what your game is going to be about.

5E has all the skills and related ability scores that you need to run a reasonable social encounter. 5E also has all the skills and abilities you need to run exploration. XP in the basic rules specifically states that XP is awarded for overcoming challenges. The word combat is nowhere to be found, except in later sections where legacy combat rules as XP for CR are outlined.

The bottom line is that the only thing keeping 5E from being a reasonable system for combat, social interaction, and exploration is a legacy of combat players and combat GMs. Any GM can pick up 5E and run all sorts of noncombat encounters with ease, award XP, and let those characters gain greater abilities for noncombat encounters in the future. That may not be the focus, but system has plenty of detail to use it that way. I know these things because that is the way I run my 5E campaigns. I write this having had my 3 latest sessions having has only one small combat encounter between them. Heavy combat is not a requirement for 5E to work.

The onus is, as it has always been, for the group to run the game they want. There are a lot of general purpose systems, any of which can be used to run the game you want. So pick one, and run it. Just because the book is written with a focus on historical ways of running games, doesn't mean you have to run them that way.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Judging Horror

Horror is the most difficult type of RPG game to run. Visual effects don't play well at the table. Sounds rarely make the players jump. Gore describe rarely has the same effect as on the big screen. Setting the tone can be hard, especially online. Everything that makes a good horror film is hard to translate. There are solutions, but today's question is, how do we judge whether or not our horror game techniques are working?

Horror is one of the few genres where bleed is expected. The things that our characters feel bleed over into our feelings. Likewise, sometimes our boredom with horror tropes and lack of tone can bleed over into our character. This bleed, in terms of judging our game, is actually helpful to us. It allows us to focus on the character without asking more difficult questions about the player.

With the character now in  our sights, we need to ask the right questions and make the right observations to tell if our horror game is working. In this case we are going to focus on 3 indicators: 1) involvement in the plot, 2) level of paranoia, and 2) emotional state.

Involvement in the plot is a key aspect of any game, including horror, so we always need to ensure players are in the game and PCs are giving input into making decisions. If PCs aren't in the conversation, they are bored or don't care about the plot. Always keep an eye on this and verify that every player is engaged.

Level of paranoia seems like a strange thing to keep track of. However, in a horror game, the sense that everything and everyone is out to get you is a powerful aspect. The best indicator of this is when players / PCs are making plans. For every new level of conspiracy and danger your players imagine that isn't true, another branch has grown from the paranoia tree. Don't just throw these imagined dangers away though. ThHey are a great source of inspiration for what might happen.

Emotional state is harder to gauge. By focusing on the character, consider just posing the question at appropriate times, either directly as GM (How is your character feeling?) or through an NPC (You look like you've had a long day?). By getting one player to admit their level of character's emotional turmoil, the other players will be influenced. Fear spreads. And through the process you get a gauge on how fearful, scare, frustrated, and tired the PCs are.

In an optimal scenario, the players are engaged in the plot, paranoia is fairly high (but not so high as to stall the game), and the PCs (and even the players) are feeling a constant sense of danger. When you reach this point, the horror game is succeeding.

If, however, these things aren't up to par, consider bringing in some new techniques and plot points. That topic, however, we will save for another day.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Foam Cutter

I built a foam cutter today. It works great. I get start into the wonderful world of foam terrain.

Interesting Encounter: Hillbilly Island

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

Hillybilly island is inspired by the X-Files Episode "Home". If you haven't watched it, I will wait while you go catch it on Netflix real quick. Ok, so this encounter takes place on an island which you can place anywhere, making it a nice excursion during a sea voyage.

This island is surrounded by dangerous rocks and there are strange sea monsters that live in the seas nearby, both of which result in many shipwrecks. Along the edge of the island lay the hulks of ships, new and old, claimed by these dangers.

The PCs arrive via shipwreck caused by the rocks or a sea monsters. The island is very small and has two buildings. The smaller building is a shed. The larger building is a house. Both are rickety, one story, and barely standing. The main house has obvious holes where the island has eroded away under the house, causing parts to fall off into the sea.  The roof of either building will not hold a person. The dry wood structures are easily set afire.

On this island, there are three "masters" called Finger, Klubb, and Big Momma. All are a mutant form of large humanoid, perhaps ogre or troll or similar. Finger has one arm that has only one massive finger at the end and carries a massive battleaxe. Klubb carries a large bundle of tree limbs as an improvised large club. Big Momma is a large glob of fat that doesn't usually leave her room. I like to roleplay up their "hillbilly" nature a bit. If the PCs can understand their language, they are in for a treat.

On the island with the three masters are 3 slaves, taken as survivors from the shipwrecks. Two have been there a while and are utterly broken. The remaining is newer and looking to escape. This is a good way to introduce a new PC into an existing campaign.  The newer slave will have suspicions that the meat they are eating are older slaves that have been eliminated. The slaves are chained, but otherwise allowed to come and go without much issue, so long as they follow the orders of the masters. Slaves have no equipment, but know where the large chest is where equipment is kept.

The shed has obvious pieces of bodies being cut up for meat, in addition to furnaces for burning what is left. The house has a living area for the large brothers and their mother, as well as slave quarters.

Between the house and shed is a a small intact boat. It would carry the party and slaves barely, but would be a rough ride with a definite possibility of sinking. Alternately, if the party had time, thy could repair their boat, which would easily carry them all.

The big moral dilemma is whether to grab the slaves and run, leaving future sailors to the terrible fate, or to fight and kill these masters and end the cycle of slavery.

Whichever path the PCs choose, they will be in for a fight. Moving the boat will be noisy and alarm the brothers. Sneaking about will probably alarm the brothers with their scent (How long has it been since the PCs had a bath?).

The brothers are brutal but dumb in combat. If they can engage a target in melee, they can take them down in one round with all hits. However, they aren't using any ranged weapons, so keeping a distance from them is the PCs' best tactic. The fight could very well be deadly. For my level 6 5E party of 6, I used the "Great Ape" stats for the masters, and it worked well.

If the party engages Big Momma, she will fight them with her "grabbing stick" which has one end made from a human hand. She will also slap at them with her huge flabby arms. She is very tough, but not nearly as damaging as the brothers. When angered, she may charge. The paper-thin wooden walls of the house easily collapse, leaving Big Momma a chance to charge through several rooms and overrun several PCs. When Big Momma is killed, 3 needle children will crawl out of her corpse and attack. This is a good time for a sanity mechanic if you have one.

The needle children have long needle-like teeth, giving them a deadly bite that just keeps on bleeding. The victim of these bites will continue to take damage after the bit if the wound is not healed or treated. In addition, the needle children have poisonous claws that can really do a number on the PCs, making them more likely to get bit.  When the needle children feel overpowered they will scatter, run away, and try to hide.

To avoid the fight, the PCs may try to collapse the house further into the sea. Unfortunately, timing of the collapse is unpredictable even with explosives or magic, so it may not work as expected. Use your own style of randomness to determine the outcome. A fire can also destroy the house, but also could spread to the shed and boat, so it is another scenario for the PCs to survive.

Should the PCs defeat the masters and their children, they will have control of the island. However, this is a good time to collapse another section of house into the sea to give the PCs a hint to move on. Either by boat or by repaired ship, the PCs can exit to their next leg of journey.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Injury instead of Death

In some game you want to build a character and run all the way from beginning to end to see all the levels, gather all the experience and loot, and have an epic tale for the ages. In these games, consider dispensing with death rules and instead substituting injuries.

Wait, what?! You can't do that. There is no reward without risk. What will make the players afraid if their characters can't die? That isn't very old school of you. Is this a more millenial PC way of gaming?! What, are you afraid of making your players cry?

Yeah, I have heard all the arguments. The bottom line is that the game is about what the players and GM make it about. Don't force your way of thinking on someone else's game. Death rules, like any other rules, can be changed if so desired. Everyone gets to play their own game.

There is a valid point in the criticism -- there has to be some consequence to making choices. If dying isn't it, what do we use instead?  Of course, we could use the plot to generate negatives, but let's stick with something a bit more mechanical. My suggestion is that we instead substitute injuries. Injuries are long term penalties to a character. Some might be permanent. Some might just take a long time to heal. All injuries occur when "death" criteria are met for your game. Your "death" criteria are entirely up to you and your group. For 5E, you could stick with normal death saving rules, or you could just rule it that death is when you hit zero hit points. To each his own.

For an injury, it has to hit you where it counts. Making a dumb-as-a-rock barbarian dumber doesn't do anything. The injury should apply to a character feature or strength. Let me throw out some examples using 5E:

  • -2 to your highest ability score
  • Disadvantage on your highest skill
  • Loss of an arm (no two-handed or dual wielding) for a melee character
  • Leg injury (half speed) for a character with speed greater than 30 feet
  • Disadvantage on checks to maintain concentration for casters
  • Disadvantage on attacks at over 30 feet for a ranged character
  • Blindness
  • Reduced healing (half healing)
  • Vulnerability to a common damage type (all slashing, bludgeoning, piercing, etc)
A GM could generate a table for a roll after to death to determine the injury based on the character type.  Injuries could heal after several levels (maybe 4 in 5E) or be permanent. In systems with points gained at levels, these could be spent to heal the injuries. Multiple injuries could stack, and perhaps, even after a fixed number of active injuries, the character could still die. This would take a certain kind of group to play out well, but it may be a good alternative to death.

Why is this better? In some games, you want to bring a character all the way through. In these cases, giving that character a serious weakness to overcome takes the place of the death penalty. By converting death, which is wholly uninteresting to the story in many cases, to a weakness, we augment the story with a new aspect. The story becomes better instead of being cut short.