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.