Monthly Archives: March 2014

A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

Through second edition, Dungeons & Dragons handled perception with a mix of mechanics: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. To find secret doors, the DM rolled a d6, and then considered the character’s elven parentage. Listening also hinges on a d6, with everyone but humans gaining an advantage. To spot an ambush, the DM resorted to the surprise system, which by AD&D, no one understood.

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

Third edition D&D would replace this mess with a system taken from Runequest (1978). Except from prior editions of D&D, Runequest serves as the dominant influence on third edition. RQ based perception on three skills: Listen, Spot Hidden Item, and Spot Trap, which became Listen, Scan, and Search in the game’s 1985 edition. A character’s intelligence boosted these skills.

When the 3E designers adopted Runequest’s perception skills as Listen, Spot, and Search, they had to decide which ability scores would match the skills. Runequest used Intelligence, and for Search, that fit. But how did intelligence help you listen? Does intelligence make you more alert?

Wisdom makes you alert

Unlike Runequest, D&D possessed a Wisdom score. Although Wisdom improved some saves, virtually no skills relied on it. The 3E designers saw a chance of broaden Wisdom’s portfolio of traits to include an awareness of more than the spiritual, but also of the hushed voices in the next room and the flash of steel through a window. While this interpretation strained the dictionary definition of Wisdom, it improved the game by making the value of Wisdom match the other ability scores.

Like RQ, third edition continued to base Search on Intelligence, but Listen and Spot stemmed from Wisdom.

Both D&D’s fourth edition and Pathfinder’s designers dispensed with the distinction. In both games, Search, Spot, and Listen all become a single Perception skill based on Wisdom. While I understand the urge to simply, Spot and Search get used frequently enough to merit separate skills. Search isn’t Use Rope.

The advantages of Search and Spot

D&D Next undoes some of the simplification by splitting Perception into two skills: Search, based on Intelligence, and Perception, based on Wisdom. The D&D Next Perception combines Listen and Spot. The rules make the analogy of comparing Search to Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect to observe clues, and comparing Next’s Perception to Tarzan’s alertness.

I think the Next designers erred by calling the combination of Listen and Spot “Perception.” The skill shares a name with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception, but it covers fewer tasks. It should have been called Awareness or something. To further compound the confusion, the section of the playtest document covering Perception and Search is titled “Perception.” When the final rules appear, I will rate the editors’ performance on whether this stands.

Having separate Perception (Awareness) and Search skills offers two advantages:

  • Both Wisdom and Intelligence gain value as they boost the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game. Without a Search skill, Intelligence only contributes to knowledge checks, which someone in the party will probably make anyway.

  • The two skills more closely simulate the real world of brilliant but inattentive professors and of alert creatures with animal intelligence. Some dogs notice the smallest disturbance, but can’t find the kibble making a lump under the rug, even though they smell it somewhere.

On the other hand, Listen remains part of Perception (Awareness), an improvement on 3E. When Listen and Spot exist as separate skills, they can apply to the same situation, leading to confusion. For example, when you might both see someone creeping in the shadows and hear them, do you make a Listen check, a Spot check, or both?

By settling on Search and Perception, D&D Next finds the optimal set of perception skills, if not optimal names.

The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing

In original Dungeons & Dragons, what did Wisdom represent? Knowledge gained from experience? Not at first level. Good sense or judgment? Perhaps, but those qualities are normally under the full control of the player, so why bother with an ability score?

Wisdom entered the game because Gary Gygax needed a prime requisite for clerics that seemed less sinister than Cunning, the cleric’s original prime requisite. At first, Wisdom seemed to measure spirituality because only clerics benefited from it.

With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on. Except for Wisdom, every high ability score delivered benefits to every character. Even Intelligence brought additional languages. Wisdom started to look like an oddity, the lone stat only good for one class.

Many fantasy role-playing games followed D&D. My table of games up to to 1983 features 14 games. All these games adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Except for Wisdom.

Cover by Erol Otis on any  early printings of the Arduin Grimoire

Cover by Erol Otis on an early printing of The Arduin Grimoire

Aside from D&D, Wisdom only appears in two games: Arduin Grimoire (1977) and Chivalry & Sorcery (1977). Dave Hargrave’s Arduin Grimoire hardly counts as a separate game. It began as a brown-book addition to D&D, an indie successor to Greyhawk and Blackmoor. Only the threat of legal action seemed to drive Dave Hargrave to claim that Arduin was a completely different game. Gary would adopt the same stance for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, another completely different game that includes Wisdom.

Why does the Wisdom ability score have so few descendants?

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear fantasy archetype. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and  Van Helsing. While the cleric has a Christian flavor, D&D eschews the sort of Christian worlds that would make the class seem at home. Instead, D&D and other fantasy RPGs draw inspiration from the sort of fantasy polytheism imagined in the Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes supplement. The gods of Lankhmar, Melniboné, and the Hyborian Age all seem more at home in D&D than a cleric sworn to wield blunt weapons. If not for the cleric’s traditional healing role, the class might rank in a third tier with druids and assassins.

If D&D featured religion similar to historical Christianity, Clerics would make a better fit. For example, Clerics and Wisdom fit easily in Chivalry & Sorcery, because the game recreates the culture of feudal Europe, complete with Christian priests capable of miracles.

Arioch from Dieties & Demigods, first printing

Arioch from Deities & Demigods, first printing

The designers of D&D’s other competitors stuck more closely to the fantasy archetypes set by Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. So they never imitated D&D’s cleric or adopted an ability score like Wisdom.

Meanwhile these designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha (1975) swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength. Arduin adds an Ego ability score as a measure of willpower. In 1978, with the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary expanded Wisdom’s portfolio to include willpower. After that, every fantasy RPG features an ability for willpower.

In AD&D, the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. Wisdom only delivered slight bonuses, so it became the place to dump your lowest score. No one needed wisdom except the poor cleric, who had to favor it over one of the other, broadly useful stats. With no compelling reason to opt for a high wisdom, character creation offers one less interesting choice.

This situation remained until third edition, with the invention of the Will save, and with Wisdom offering bonuses to the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game.

Next: A short history of perception in D&D

Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983

While researching some posts, I looked at the ability scores in the fantasy role-playing games published from 1974 to 1983. My notes grew until they became the tables that appear here.

These tables encompass nearly every fantasy RPG published between 1974 and 1983 that I happen to have, and I must have almost all of them. I cannot find my copy of Lords of Creation from 1983. Sorry LoC fans.

The table lists a 13 character traits from strength to beauty, and indicates the ability score each game uses to represent the trait. To decide on the mappings, I drew on each game’s description of an ability, and on the ability’s mechanical effect in the game. If more than one score contributed to an ability, I mapped the score with the biggest contribution.

Trait Blackmoor
& Dragons
Tunnels &
Empire of
the Petal
& Sorcery
in Fantasy
Dungeons &
The Fantasy
Hero System
Game (1983)
Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical
Stamina Health Constitution Constitution Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Fatigue Health Mass Constitution Physical
Health Constitution Health
Durability Endurance Body
Magic ability Brains Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence   Intelligence Intelligence Power Intelligence Intelligence IQ Reasoning
Magical aptitude Will   Intelligence IQ
Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Wit Intelligence
Search ability                   Intuition Perception  
Willpower       Psychic
Ego       Wisdom Self Discipline Willpower Will   Ego Mental
Spirituality Cunning Wisdom       Wisdom Wisdom       Empathy          
Precision of
  Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity   Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Manual
Deftness Agility Dexterity Physical
Quickness   Agility Quickness Agility Speed Speed
Charm Credibility Charisma Charisma   Leadership
Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma   Presence       Presence Mental
Beauty Looks
Comeliness Comeliness Personal
Physical Beauty     Comeliness Physical

Throughout all the years, fantasy RPGs adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Some games split one of the original ability scores into narrower abilities: Dexterity splits into an attribute for precise movements and one for quickness. Constitution splits into attributes for endurance and resilience. Charisma splits into attributes for charm and beauty. With Unearthed Arcana, AD&D experimented with the Charisma and Comeliness split.

Not all games represent every trait in an ability score. When no ability applies to a trait, the cell appears in yellow.

The table omits a few odd ability scores that share no comparable scores in the other games. Tunnels & Trolls includes Luck, which apparently gives players a chance to roll all their saving throws at once. Chivalry & Sorcery includes Bardic Voice, for your Feudal Idol campaign. Arduin adds Mechanical Ability and Swimming Ability because no one had invented skills yet.

These games come from an era when most designers worked to simulate game worlds more accurately than D&D. In the games that appeared in the early ’80s, this quest for realism shows in burgeoning numbers of ability scores. Powers & Perils appeared in 1983 and reaches a pinnacle for the situationist era of ability scores.

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils uses scores for Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Will, Eloquence, Empathy, Constitution, and Appearance. If designers had borrowed Bardic Voice from C&S, they would have covered everything. The game drops combinations of these 10 attributes into formulas for various factors used in the game. For example, to find your character’s Hit Point Value (HPV), calculate (S + St + C)/4, using Strength, Stamina, and Constitution. The game includes pages of similar equations, and thus defied my attempts to match abilities to my table. By 1984, unpopular RPGs such as P&P and Lords of Creation drove Avalon Hill to write a check for the RuneQuest license.

Meanwhile, The Fantasy Trip came from Steve Jackson’s man-to-man skirmish games, Melee and Wizard, and used just three ability scores. As the first RPG to use a point-buy system for ability scores, the abilities in TFT needed to be equally valuable.

The first Hero System game, Champions, also featured a point-buy system, but the system never balances the value of abilities. Instead, more valuable abilities cost more points. Other games on this list never needed to balance ability scores; players rolled the dice and took what chance gave them.

For comparison, D&D Next’s ability scores map as follows.

Characteristic Dungeons & Dragons
Next (2014)
Strength Strength
Endurance Constitution
Awareness Wisdom
Precision Dexterity
Charm Charisma

In the games that followed D&D, only the Wisdom ability score stands with few clear descendants. The story of Wisdom is a subject for a future post.

How Dungeons & Dragons gained its ability scores

In History of D&D in 12 Treasures, Jon Peterson shows a character sheet from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, the game which inspired Dungeons & Dragons. The sheet includes 8 personality traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle. So the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

How did these many personality trait turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

Gary Gygax never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution. Even though “constitution” sent a young DM David to the dictionary, I prefer Gary’s more precise word choices.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. Unearthed Arcana and other role-playing games experimented with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty, but Sex had to wait for players of the Ironwood RPG.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for Clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells actually worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. Eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die. In the early days, ability scores counted for little. Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. I started with the 1977 basic set, which provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

Despite different ability scores, early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to becoming a game like D&D Next, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 2

This post continues a list I started in part 1.

Players will not mix and mingle.

Adventure authors come from a secret coterie of role players who enter a tavern or a royal ball and then spend the evening mixing and mingling with the non-player characters with no particular goal or objective in mind and certainly without ever rolling a die. I know this, because I frequently run into adventures that expect the characters to uncover clues and background as they aimlessly mingle.

I feel sure these dungeon masters do more than simply describe certain NPCs in enough detail for metagaming players to realize that they are supposed to meet. Whenever players do something because the metagame makes them think they are supposed to, the game suffers.

In Scourge of the Sword Coast, during the first session, players enter a inn that includes three non-player characters with information leading to adventure. The adventure suggests no way for the dungeon master to engage the players with these non-player characters, presumably because the writer just assumed the players mingle with the occupants of the bar. 

In practice, as a DM, if I want the players to learn what these NPCs know, I must find ways for the NPCs to engage the characters. For example, Vosson Raker might learn of characters’ journey and ask if they saw signs of gnoll raids. Edic Tilveram might ask if they came from Julkoun. Ledoris eyes the characters, wondering if they meet the description of the adventurers who shorted Filarion Filvendorson. No, this isn’t a big job—less of a job than inventing those names, but its not too small a task for the adventure’s author. I paid for the adventure and I want it ready for play.

For more on this subject, see “What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing” and “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.”

Hint: In a place where news travels by word of mouth, the locals will ask visitors for news.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

Players will assume that they can defeat every monster.

Before the days of plotted adventures and balanced encounters, this bias did not exist, but decades of storytelling and careful balance has taught players to expect only encounters they can beat.

Sometimes I write adventures that include monsters more powerful than the player characters. Either the monsters act as obstacles to be avoided, NPCs to be met, dangers to add time pressure, or distractions that can be lured to fight other threats. In short, some monsters can serve interesting roles other than trading attacks for 4 rounds. But setting up these non-combat parts always poses a problem because characters assume they can beat every monster, and should probably fight.

Overcoming the players’ assumption that they will never be outclassed requires careful effort. I make descriptions that weigh heavily on the characters’ knowledge that a particular threat is overwhelming. The characters live in the game world and should have some sense of what menaces they could defeat—certainly more sense than their players do. Sometimes I drop a colossal miniature on the table to emphasize the point. And still, when I want to avoid the risk of a total party kill, I must plan a way for foolish characters to escape the deaths they richly deserve. Too frequently, the party includes a reckless instigator or someone convinced that it has to be an illusion. “That thing can’t be as bad as it looks! Charge!”

Hint: Players justifiably hate being railroaded into an encounter they cannot win. They hate being taken captive. And they hate hate hate when their captors take their stuff. But if you present them with an easily avoided menace, tell them that their characters know in their heart that this battle will overwhelm them, and if they still rush in, then you can take them captive. Just give them a chance to win back their stuff quickly. Not because they deserve it, but because otherwise it will take them too long to update their tear-dampened character sheets.

Players never settle for a partial victory.

Few players join a Dungeons & Dragons game expecting to make compromises or to settle for less than total victory. Who can blame them? One of the joys of D&D is the chance to play the hero: To escape the compromises and lesser evils of the real world and solve every problem with an cunning plan and a quick sword. Still the fun of a game comes from the choices. Some of the best moments of recent battle interactive events comes when the collected room debates a shared, ethical dilemma. Should we free the enslaved elementals, or become their slavers to advance our cause? Should we surrender our city to the advancing forces of darkness, or should we destroy it, denying it to the enemy? While your game table may not decide on the future of the Realms, these sorts of questions enable players to explore their characters and make the game come to life.

In CORE5-3 Lost Refuge, the characters find themselves trapped with some villagers in the heart of a camp teeming with cyclops. They face the choice of whether to make an easy escape, leaving the captives to their fate, or assuming the greater risks of taking the captives along. The adventure assumes players will wrestle with the choice, but I ran this adventure five times and no party gave the safer option a moment of consideration.

As long as a chance of total victory exists, players will always seize the chance. Only when the choices become mutually exclusive will players begin weigh their options.

Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 1

At conventions and in organized play, I’ve served as dungeon master for a lot of adventures from other authors. Every adventure author makes certain guesses about what the players will do. Typically the authors guess pretty well, but sometimes they make guesses that are utterly wrong. Sometimes authors waste pages accounting for actions that no player will ever take, or fail to account for obvious choices, forcing the dungeon master to scramble to bridge gaps. Of course, many dungeon masters create their own adventures, so the author who guesses wrong is also the DM who wastes time prepping, or who winds up scrambling.

Even though no author or DM wants to run a railroad, even though seeing players make surprising choices ranks as one of the best parts of being a DM, we can all benefit by anticipating our players actions a bit better. Over time, I have learned some things players will always do, or never do, in a particular situation.

dungeon adventure

My list includes examples drawn from Living Forgotten Realms adventures. I selected these examples because I ran each of the adventures at least five times. Through several plays, missed assumptions about how players would act stood out. The adventures still worked. I can attest that I enjoyed running all these adventures and that my players seemed to like them too. I also pick on Scourge of the Sword Coast, simply because I just finished reading the adventure in preparation for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters.

Players never report back to authorities.

In CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver, players take the job of scouting to discover if Thay forces have crossed the Umbar River to invade Aglarond. Once the characters learn the answer, they are to report back on their findings. The adventure puts that instruction in bold. When players report back, they get their next mission. I suspect report back appears in bold because as soon as playtest groups spotted the Thay forces, most started freelancing. Once players get a whiff of a problem to solve—those Thay forces invading—the DM will be hard-pressed to swing them back on course. When I ran this adventure, I had the patron repeat the crucial importance of reporting back without delay, yet all of my groups struggled mightily against the urge to act, and many went freelancing.

Players will follow every lead to the end.

ELTU3-6 True Blue also sends characters on a mission with instructions to report back on its completion. The players seek some notes and materials for Lord Krieger of the Iriaebor Council and Andrielle, a priestess of Chauntea. After gaining the materials, players learn that Andrielle might be doing something unsavory in her tower. With their mission accomplished, they face the choice of either bringing the notes and materials to Krieger or going straight to Andrielle’s tower. The adventure wastes several pages exploring what happens if the characters report back to Krieger first. I say wastes because no players ever report to Krieger first. Never.

As soon as players gain a lead—word of suspicious events at the tower—players follow the lead to the end.

The latest encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, flirts with a similar problem. As the players complete various missions for the people of Daggerford, they discover clues pointing to trouble in a particular location. While the adventure assumes that players will wait to the climax before investigating the location, I suspect that most groups will investigate the moment they identify the location.

Next: Part 2.

How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I run a lot of games at conventions. Sometimes I run the same adventure as many as eight times. You might think the repetition grows tiresome, but I like it. Rerunning an adventure brings three benefits:

  • I like the fun at the table more than I like preparing to play. If I run an adventure more than once, I can invest a lot of time in preparing, and then see my efforts pay off in more than one session.

  • With each run through an adventure, my delivery improves. I emphasize elements that players’ like best and I polish or avoid the rough patches. Sometimes I learn things. This process mostly works in the players’ favor, but as I perfect the monsters’ tactics, the fights get tougher.

  • I can experiment with my descriptions and characterizations, and then witness how small changes influence the players’ decisions.

Any game master knows that something as small as the amount of description given to each item in a room can sway a party’s choices. I enjoy seeing how even small changes can influence decisions.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive at Origins 2013

The lessons I learn make me better at influencing players’ choices. That sounds bad. I swear that I use any insights I gain for good rather than evil.

Running a convention game to satisfying conclusion within a strict time slot demands some finesse. I want to present the adventure so the players’ decisions just happen to follow the broad outline of the adventure. First, I never want to lead players off track. Every game master has seen bit of descriptive fluff lead players into a wild tangent. In a home game, you can run with a tangent, but not in a typical convention game. If players stray off track, I want to lure them back, gently. Despite all this, I never want players to feel railroaded. I would rather improvise than run a railroad.

Most adventures written for a convention time slot expect characters to follow a plot arc, but the good ones offer players some interesting decisions along the way.

I want the players to weigh as many choices as the adventure offers, and I want all the options to seem compelling. When players enter a discussion weighing the merits of two options, score one for me and the adventure. Whenever players speculate about how events might have changed if they had chosen differently, score another.

If the adventure offers a decision that the players’ never consider, then I need to adjust for the next table. For example, if the adventure intends for players to face a dilemma over whether to complete their objectives or to rescue some captives, but the players always choose one option without weighing the other, then I need to tweak things so the players face a thornier, more interesting choice.

If I do my job well, then during my next run of the adventure, the players surprise me and the session goes differently than the last. That is how the dungeon master wins Dungeons & Dragons.