Monthly Archives: October 2012

Player skill without player frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key. (See Zork 2, part 2 for more.)Zork II Box Art

Back when D&D consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. I loved it.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail. With table-top games, that never has to happen.

The great thing about table-top games is that the dungeon master can allow creative solutions.

Sadly, not every DM is open to creative solutions. Typically, these DMs fall into the mindset of beating the players. Frustrated players mean I’m winning D&D!

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door you can pick the lock with thievery, or break the door with strength.

But when the game emphasizes character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. I suppose this improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is much less fun than D&D can be.

Of course, you can emphasize player-skill with any edition of D&D.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

  • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
  • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
  • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
  • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
  • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
  • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
  • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
  • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack. Is Gary guilty of the same sort of inflexible, narrow approach that I criticize? Yes. In the case of Tomb of Horrors, that’s the way Gary wanted it. He created the Tomb to be “ready for those fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

When I DM, I love to be surprised. I think one of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let the characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed wouldn’t actually work.
  • Watch out for clever ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of wall of force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.

Marking Zones and Areas in Fourth Edition D&D

As a way to mark zones and other lasting, area effects, I purchased a set of transparent, colored sheets from American Science and Surplus. I cut the sheets into a 3×3, 5×5, and 7×7 square sizes.

Area markers clipped to DM screen

In play, I discovered that the 3×3 sheets worked wonderfully. I paper clipped a variety of sheets to the inside of my DM’s screen. Now, whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners.

Litko Boundry MarkersAfter a while, I started leaving the larger sheets at home. The larger areas seldom come into play, and when they do, you inevitably have to lift several miniatures to position the sheet. Remembering the positions of everything becomes a challenge. Then when you remove the zone, you have to lift and reposition everything again.

For larger areas, I now use the boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories. They’re cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.

Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy

One of the key design features of D&D Next is something the designers call bounded accuracy. Bounded accuracy reins in the steady escalation of bonuses to checks and attacks that characters received in earlier editions. I love bounded accuracy.

To explain my affection, I want to consider two problems with (nearly) unbounded accuracy in the third and fourth edition.

Third and fourth edition both assumed a steep and steady increase of plusses to your skill numbers as your character advanced. This rewarded you with a sense of accomplishment as you saw your character improve, but the increases led to problems at higher levels.

In third edition, at each level, characters received an allotment of points to improve selected skills. If you reached high level, and concentrated your improvements on the same skills, you gained huge bonuses to those skills.

The huge bonuses created a dilemma for dungeon masters and authors trying to set DCs for high level adventures. You could set very high DCs that challenged players who specialized in a skill. These DCs were impossibly high for non-specialists, so if the party lacked a specialist in a particular skill, the task became flat out impossible. Alternately, you could set low enough DCs to give non-specialists a chance, but these DCs grant the specialists an automatic success.  (Again, by specialists, I just mean a character who concentrates skill improvements on the same skill, not a super-optimized character.)

Third edition assumes that the DM will justify the sky-high DCs required to challenge high-level specialists by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, he must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

In the skill section of the third edition Epic Level Handbook, the epic-level obstacles become absurd. Here we find the DC for balancing on clouds, sweet talking hostile creatures into sacrificing their lives for you, and so on. I understand that some folks enjoy playing characters as mythic, godlike creatures, but to me, that game doesn’t seem like D&D anymore. Given the rarity of epic play, I suspect I stand with the majority.

Fourth edition tried to resolve the problem of high-level DCs becoming either impossible for typical characters or automatic for specialists. The system grants every character a flat, half-level bonus to checks. Now skilled characters maintained a flat +5 bonus when compared to their peers. Everyone enjoyed steady increases, but no one fell too far behind. This approach fixed the math, but when you compare characters of different levels, it defies logic and breaks your suspension of disbelief.

By level 10, a wizard with an 8 strength, gains the same ability to smash down a wooden door as an first-level character with an 18 strength.

“Wow, Wiz, have you been working out?”

“Thanks for noticing. My strength will be 9 soon.”

Of course, Wiz never gets a chance to show off his new prowess, because those DC 16 wooden doors have all been replaced by level-appropriate, DC 20 barred doors.

In truth, the players never really advance because they stand on a treadmill.

You can see the treadmill on page 126 of the 4e Rules Compendium in the “Difficulty Class By Level” table. Using this table, your character no longer gets better at easy checks, she just faces higher DCs. That table makes Living Forgotten Realms adventures work across entire tiers.

Fourth edition is inconsistent about whether the rising DCs in the “Difficulty Class By Level” table represent increasingly legendary barriers in the game world. For example, the DCs for breaking doors rise as the doors become sturdier. But social skills tend to be pegged to the DC-by-level table. (The system just assumes you killed the king’s dog.) The Living Forgotten Realms adventures used for organized play mostly abandon any attempt to flavor the rising DCs as increasingly legendary challenges. The challenges never change, just the DCs.

By reining in the scale of skill bonuses as character’s advance, D&D Next solves both problems. The system does not reward players with the same magnitude of improvements as their character’s advances, but the small improvements are real improvements, not steps on a treadmill.

While bounded accuracy solves problems, characters still need to stand out from their peers. A specialist should stand out and enjoy a chance to shine. The current ability bonuses are too small to achieve this. You can read my opinion on ability bonuses and checks here.

In D&D Next, ability modifiers are too small for the ability check mechanic

Imagine the scene: Fastfeet the Rogue and Joe Average need to cross a rickety rope bridge before kobolds have time to drop a bolder from the cliffs above. Fastfeet, with dexterity 20, stands as the quickest halfling alive. Joe Average. with dexterity 10, has a hopelessly mundane, non-D&D name. Let’s call him J’oe. Better.

The wobbly bridge has rotting and missing planks, so crossing it without slowing requires a dexterity check. The DM decides that the crossing counts as an EASY check: DC 10. No problem thinks Fastfeet, I’m optimized to have the highest possible dexterity. I just can’t roll a 1…or a 2, or 3, or 4. Hmmm, I may as well try diplomacy.

Fastfeet, the quickest halfling alive, still suffers a 20% chance of missing an EASY check. Despite being the quickest possible character, Fastfeet only gains an extra 25 percentage points in his chance over J’oe average.

The problem stems from the mere +5 that a 20 characteristic adds to the check. The D20 roll swamps it. This leads to two problems:

  • Exceptional characters do not noticeably stand out. Whether your character has a poor or a great characteristic, every ability check pretty much feels like a coin flip. This becomes particularly noticeable with checks that encourage everyone at the table to try. That’s when everyone puzzles over an ancient map fragment, the resident sage says she will try a history check, and everyone chimes in, “I’ll try too.” Most times, the expert character gets no chance to shine, because her numerical bonus barely exceeds anyone else’s. The success goes to the person who happened to roll a 19.
  • Even when an exceptional character attempts something easy, the outcome remains unpredictable, as in Fastfeet’s case.

I asked Mike Mearls about this issue, and he said that the DM could simply rule that a easy check is an automatic success for characters of advanced ability. The advice patches over bad math with DM fiat. As a DM, I would make that ruling, because the system’s rotten foundation forces it. I would rather see math that works.

You may think that I’m overlooking the skills that address my problem with the math. Forget skills. D&D next has no skill checks or ability checks, only checks. Unlike earlier editions, skills no longer provide a system for determining success, so for example, the skill descriptions no longer include rules for resolution. Skills represent a small number of areas where extraordinary focus and training might help your character make checks.  Skills stand as an optional rule for granting a bonus to a limited number of checks. Most checks rely entirely on ability modifiers.

This means that Fastfeet’s +5 won’t get any better. No athletics or balance skill exists to improve the odds. Even if one did, most characters only get 3 skills.

In 3rd and 4th edition, the DM typically asks for skill checks rather than ability checks. Fastfeet probably has acrobatics skill, granting another +4 or +5 to the check. Suddenly that easy check becomes easy.

Third and fourth edition assumed checks would be skill checks, so both the skill and ability contributed bonuses. Next assumes ability checks. Skills add an unusual bonus rather than an inevitable addition.

I think this simplification makes for a better game. In addition to the virtue of simplicity, an over-reliance on skills tends to encourage players to solve problems by looking at their skill list, rather than thinking about other things their character could do in the game world.

I like the new approach, but in D&D next, the system’s numbers still seem to assume characters always get a skill bonus stacked with an ability bonus. In practice, a first level character gets a maximum bonus of +5 to a typical check. Little mathematical difference exists between a character with extraordinary ability and one with average ability. In third and fourth edition, a level 1 character like Fastfeet saw a bonus closer to +9 or +10, big enough to make a practical difference.

The solution seems obvious. For checks, the ability modifier must double, to +1 for each ability score point over 10. Now Fastfeet enjoys a +10 to dex checks, appropriate for the quickest halfling alive and consistent with the bonus typical in earlier editions.
Obviously, Fastfeet cannot also enjoy a +10 on his bow attacks. The original modifier scale must remain as combat modifiers, separate from ability check modifiers.  The two scales introduce a small, necessary complexity.

On the other hand, calculating ability modifiers becomes easier. A character with 15 dexterity has a +5 ability modifier. As an added bonus, odd-numbered ability scores gain significance in the game. Suddenly 15 really is better than 14.

I realize this change bucks the history of ability modifiers established in 3rd edition, but I can trump that with an earlier precedent.  Check page B60 of the Moldvay basic set from 1981. “To perform a difficult task, the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20.” The mechanic flips the numbers, asking for a low roll, but your ability score has the same numerical effect as the modifiers I suggest. In the late 70s, I saw this mechanic used frequently. So the change qualifies as old school and it fixes the system. Seems like a win.

Still not convinced? Consider this. Over the course of an adventure, an exceptionally-strong fighter might make a hundred attack rolls. The +5 attack modifier she gains from her 18(00), I mean 20, strength improves them all. She dominates the battlefield. Over the course of the same adventure, the smooth talker with a 20 charisma may get 8 diplomacy checks, tops. Over the course of so few rolls, the 1-20 spread of the die buries the mere +5. The diplomacy skill can help. Still the most charming person you ever meet, in game terms, seems little better than the half orc who picks his nose as he negotiates with the elf king. The player who optimized the smooth talker hardly gets a chance to shine.

The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures

Top miniatures gallery

When the Harbinger set of pre-painted miniatures arrived in 2003, I mainly used tokens, cardboard heroes, and similar items to stand in for miniatures. Unpainted miniature barely tempted me. I lacked enough time for the pastimes I already had, so I could hardly add miniature painting to the slate. But the new pre-painted miniatures seemed affordable and appealing. I figured I would augment my cardboard with a few common monsters, orcs and skeletons and the lot.

And so I began sliding down a slippery slope.  Wizards of the Coast closed the local Gamekeeper store and marked down the Harbinger boxes, so I snapped them up. New sets came, and I decided I might as well get enough boosters to collect a nice set of commons.  When 3.5 arrived, I looked at my shelf of 3.0 edition books that I had not read yet, and decided to budget more money toward edition-proof miniatures and less on books. Soon, I had a big collection. Now I feel compelled to gather the best possible figures for an encounter.

If you’re cheaper or more sensible than I am, you can still follow my original plan and collect a small group of broadly useful miniatures. I use some figures so often that I never bother to file them away. Based on my experience running organized play events, I present the 10 most useful types of miniatures.





Bloodseeker Drake, Crested Felldrake, Guard Drake

For some reason, adventure authors love adding spiders and small drakes as critters and pets to round out encounters. With few low-level options, who can blame the authors? Nobody wants to fight lovable beasts like wolves.


Deathjump Spider, Spider of Lolth


Medium Earth Elemental, Loyal Earth Elemental, Medium Fire Elemental

Medium sized elementals appear frequently in adventures of all levels. Earth elementals nose ahead of fire as the most common. You can skip the water elemental figures.

Sadly, Wizards never produced a translucent, medium-sized air elemental. The dirty Shardstorm Vortex stands as the best alternative. The solid-plastic air elemental in Harbinger may rank as the worst figure ever to appear in a D&D miniature set.


Human Thug

Thugs, especially armed with clubs, appear frequently in heroic-tier adventures.

Guards with pole arms

Human Town Guard, Royal Guard, Phalanx Soldier

For some reason, town and palace guards always carry spears or halberds.


Free League Ranger, Graycloak Ranger, Militia Archer

Most encounters call for an enemy capable of ranged attacks. In urban encounters, bowmen appear all the time.

Overall, too few humanoid miniatures sport ranged weapons.

Elf Warmage

Elf Warmage

I always carry a few miniatures suitable for player characters that I can loan out. Players borrow this elf warmage more than any other figure. Plus, she often finds work as a patron, bystander, or fey villain.


Animated Statue, Earth Element Gargoyle

I love to toy with players’ metagame expectations. Every D&D player knows that statues invariable come to life and attack─at least when they have a miniature on the map. So whenever a statue appears on a map, I drop a statue or gargoyle figure on top of it. Inevitably, the players edge nervously around the potential hazard. It never ceases to amuse me. Does that make me a mean DM?

Of course, sometimes, the statues really do attack.

Skeletons and zombies

Boneshard Skeleton, Skeleton, Warrior Skeleton, Zombie, Zombie

In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, that sort of design will get your DM card suspended. This surrender to logic makes undead more useful than ever.  (This also holds true for the elementals, above.) In my opinion, the unarmored, boneshard skeleton ranks as the best. The need for ranged undead means blazing skeletons and skeletal archers also see tons of use


Lurking Wraith

I think the Lurking Wraith ranks as the single best D&D miniature figure ever produced. Not only does the translucent figure look great, but it works in numerous encounters at every level. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who loves this figure. Miniature vendors charge about $9 each, much more than the typical price of a medium-sized, uncommon figure. You can get unpainted, blue versions in the Castle Ravenloft board game. I hope a painted version reappears in the upcoming, undead-themed, Dungeon Command set.


Goblin Sharpshooter, Goblin Cutter, Goblin Skullcleaver

The ubiquitous opponent for beginning characters. Many different goblins appeared in the D&D miniatures run, but the best came in the last few sets. Get a bunch with melee weapons and bunch with ranged weapons. They’re cheap.