Monthly Archives: April 2014

Making aid-another checks more than a way to wring a bonus from the rules

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons introduced the aid another action and rolls to assist a character making a check. This mechanic carried into fourth edition and Pathfinder.

Pulling Together - NARA - 534164Typically, in a role-playing game, the game master tells the players when to make a check. For more, see “When should a game master call for a check?” Ideally, rolls to assist with a check should work the same way. When a player describes actions she takes to help, the GM should ask for her to contribute an assist check. For example, when Jasper the rogue tries to convince blind Auntie Fears that he’s a member of the Family, his player rolls the bluff check. If Astrid whispers Family lore in Jasper’s ear, the game master asks her to make a check to assist.

Too often, rolls to aid another come when the players ask to make the roll. The GM tells a player to make a check, and then everyone at the table, and the pizza guy at the door, all start rolling to assist. Everyone has lost immersion in the game world and turned to wringing plusses from the rules.

Assist with specific actions

When someone asks to aid another, as the game master, you should ask, “How do you assist?”

Sometimes the answer may be obvious. If a boulder blocks the tunnel, the more muscle, the better. Sometimes, the answer requires some ingenuity, so the players need to explain what actions they take to help.

Limiting who can assist

In many situations, not everyone can crowd in to assist. If the whole party wants to smash a ordinary-sized door, they will need battering ram. Even in role-playing tasks, you can limit how many characters can plausibly help. No one wants to enter a car dealership and be swarmed as every salesperson pushes to assist the sale. Ye Olde Wagon Shoppe is no different.

Assisting in role playing scenes

In role-playing situations, you will typically talk through an interaction that leads to a check. If someone wants to assist with the diplomacy, intimidation, or deception, they must speak up and contribute as the scene plays out.

For example, when Jasper bluffs Auntie Fears, you would normally role play the scene and then ask for a check to decide if Auntie is fooled. If Astrid wants to assist by whispering background to Jasper, she must help during the scene. Once you call for a check to find an outcome, she cannot interrupt and declare that she assisted retroactively.

Aid another may demand a different skill

Players take specific actions to help, so their aid-another checks depend on the actions they use. Just because Jasper makes a bluff check doesn’t mean Astrid rolls a bluff check too. Astrid might need to make a history check, or depending on Auntie’s family business, a streetwise check. If Astrid draws her knowledge of Family lore from the diary she read after the last scene, she might even assist without a roll.

Look for chances to grant an assist check

Sometimes when players become totally immersed in the game world, they will act to help, and then forget to lobby for an assist check. Ask them for the assist check. Everyone wins when players act in the game world and you can reward them for it.

Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition

The regular players at my regular Dungeons & Dragons Encounters games include a mix of fourth-edition loyalists and folks indifferent to edition. Although I would happily run D&D next, I have bowed to the group and still run Encounters in 4E. That means converting the current Encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, to 4E. The conversion creates a few challenges beyond just finding fourth edition stats for the monsters.


Combats in D&D next take far less time than in fourth edition.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast lasts 12 encounters sessions. The season starts with two sessions introducing players to their home base of Daggerford and another session for the finale, leaving 9 weeks for the bulk of the adventure. Typical parties will visit four adventure sites, each with 20 or more numbered locations. The adventure budgets two sessions per site. In each site, most parties must win several battles to meet their objectives.

In D&D next, a party can role-play, explore, and finish a few fights in a 2-hour session. In 4E, not a chance. At most, players can drop a sentry, and finish one battle.

My fourth-edition time budget means that I have to cut locations, enemies, and material like a sailor jettisons weight as my ship takes water. I must condense each location to a couple of key encounters, and two fights. (If a session fails to include at least one battle, some of my players will leave disappointed.)

The surplus of material brings one benefit: Because Scourge of the Sword Coast includes far more material than I can play through, I can give the players plenty of choices, confident that their path leads to something in the text.

Encounter scale

In D&D next, every combat encounter taxes the party’s resources, while in fourth edition, only big encounters challenge a party.

Unlike characters in D&D next, 4E characters typically regain all their hit points and most of their spells and powers after a fight. Some attrition comes as they slowly lose healing surges, but 4E characters rarely run out of healing surges. Characters’ encounter powers make them more powerful during the first rounds of a fight. Characters can focus encounter powers on outnumbered enemies, leaving few survivors to return attacks. After the encounter, characters regain all that firepower without meaningful losses. They might even gain action points and grow stronger. No 4E player will waste a daily on a small encounter, so even that small element of attrition never factors in. In 4E, small fights just add flavor without challenge.

Between battles, fourth-edition characters regain most of their resources. This design aims to encourage players to adventure on instead of resting after a five-minute work day. While 4E removed some built-in reasons for players to quit early, the best reasons for pressing on still come from the adventure’s narrative, or at least from wandering monsters.

Smaller combat encounters dominate Scourge of the Sword Coast. In the adventure sites, D&D next players must pick and choose their battles, perhaps avoiding some. The sites have organized defenders, which means if the characters retreat, they face pursuit and give the monsters a chance to reinforce. In D&D next, this adventure design works.

For fourth edition, I’ve focused each site on a couple of big fights. The organized defenders make this change reasonable. Once a fight begins, the monsters can rally guards from other locations. One battle featured the party pursueing monsters through a network of cellars, struggling to prevent the fleeing goblinoids from joining more waves of reinforcements.

Adapting difficulty

Fourth-edition D&D makes preparing monsters and encounters easy.

This conversion process highlight one of my favorite aspects of fourth edition. The game makes adjusting monster and encounter difficulty simple. The Adventure Tools’ Monster Builder allows me to search a list of all the monsters published for the game. I can find suitable replacements for creatures in the adventure. The original monster level hardly matters, because the tool lets me add or subtract levels. The tool automatically adjust hit points, defenses, damage and so on. I favor fourth edition’s approach of building encounters with a mix of monsters in different roles. So even if Scourge of the Sword Coast only lists vanilla goblins at a location, I pick a variety of goblins for my encounter.

As much as I like the scalability of 4e monsters, the demands of organized play have forced authors to rely on scaling more than I like. Later Living Forgotten Realms adventures typically scale the same monsters across an entire tier. I once ran an adventure that pitted my table’s first-level party against a group of trolls, including minions. Somehow, seeing new characters one-shotting hulking trolls offended my D&D sensibilities.

On the high end, I ran a battle interactive that scaled kobolds to eighteenth level for my high-paragon table. Flavor aside, the mathematical adjustments utterly failed to make these kobolds into anything more than an opportunity for players to demonstrate their powers. Even the most elite kobolds in the entire world cannot hope to challenge 18th-level heroes.

I’m not criticizing the volunteer authors of these adventures. The job of creating adventures that scale across 10 or 20 levels poses enough challenges without requiring different types of monsters at different levels.

Fourth edition also makes balanced encounters easy. Include one monster per character. Optionally, add as many minions as you have figures—minions never swing the tide of battle. When running the organized defenses of Scourge, I often start with a few defenders and then add extras as the battle develops. Even against waves of attacks, 4E characters prove resilient enough to escape defeat.

In 1980, Bushido anticipates third edition D&D

Bushido (1980) by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette

Bushido (1980) by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette

Twenty years before the release of third edition Dungeons & Dragons, the Japanese-themed RPG Bushido included this rule:

Saving throws…represent the chance of making a supernatural exertion of the Attribute, such as dodging a trap or missile (Speed), resisting a spell (usually Will), or neutralizing a drug or infection (Health).” – Bushido (1980) by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette

I suspect the near match between the saving throws in Bushido and the Reflex, Will, and Fortitude saves in 3E comes from designers working at the same problem and arriving at a similar solution, rather than from a direct influence. Nonetheless, the similarity is striking.

When should a game master call for a check?

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, players searched by telling the dungeon master where they wanted to look, and then the dungeon master told them if something was there. The game resolved most actions using back and forth dialog, plus clear cause and effect. Before skills and core mechanics, resolution relied on the on the logic of the game world.

Old-school gamers swear by this method, and with good reason: It grants players, and not the dice, control over their characters’ fates. It makes player decisions and ingenuity count. The details of the game world matter.

But some tasks demand a character’s talents to succeed, so this sort of resolution cannot cover every action: listening at doors, creeping behind an enemy, balancing atop a rope spanning a moat. Until skills entered D&D, the game relied on checks like the d6 rolls that tell whether you spot the secret door or whether you can hear anything behind it.

Once skills and ability checks entered the game, they began to spread. Sometimes a check can provide a shortcut for tasks that could prove dull. If the players want to search a cluttered room, but want to avoid the tedium of describing how they cut the straw mattresses, sift the dirt in the flowerpots, and so on and on, a search check seems like a time saver. (In an upcoming post, I will suggest how to run these scenes without tedium and without skipping to a search roll.) Fourth edition’s Streetwise skill seems contrived to skip all the urban role-playing that the designers apparently found tiresome.

Some players lobby for checks as a way to bypass challenges they dislike. More than once, I’ve heard the player argue that their character is smarter or more charming than they are, and so a simple intelligence or diplomacy check should provide a solution to a puzzle or to a role-playing scene.

White Plume MountainAs a game master, I steer the game away from activities no one seems to enjoy, but I feel wary of letting someone use a die roll to cheat the other players out of the fun of interacting with the game world and actually playing the game. However, if the entire table agrees, we can just substitute a Dungeoneering check for that trip to White Plume Mountain.

While some actions require a die roll to resolve, as often as possible, I prefer to rely the logical cause and effect of the game world. Players say where they want to look, and I say if something is there.

I have a confession to make. When I run a game with skills, sometimes I feel bad if I fail to let players use their skills. After all, the game says you can use Search to find stuff, Diplomacy to sweet talk the Baron, and so on. The players invested in these skills while dreaming of chances to use them.

To help me decide when to call for a check, I settled on two principles:

  • Limit checks to situations where no more description of an action can determine whether it succeeds or fails.

  • Clever and specific actions that would probably succeed, do succeed, even when a skill applies.

More than once I’ve seen a player make an impassioned speech in character, asking the Baron, for instance, to defend the settlers. The player’s voice trembles with passion as he speaks of courage, loyalty, and the honor of the Baron’s ancestors, calling their spirits by name. The player steps down from atop a chair to applause and tearing eyes. But then, feeling bound by the system, I ask for a diplomacy check at +2, which the orator flubs. Sorry, you fail.

No more. Screw the check. Now, I will rise to applaud, and in the character of the Baron, rally my men to glory!

In situations beyond diplomacy, specific actions can also trump skills. If someone taps the bottom of a chest looking for the secret compartment, skip the search check and just reveal the location. If someone describes an ingenious use of leverage to lift a gate, skip the strength check.

When you apply these two principles, the players will lose a few chances to use skills. Accept that. Skills like Perception and Diplomacy rank as the game’s most frequently used, so players will still get chances to use these skills in situations with no obvious outcome. As for Streetwise, good riddance.

Related: Player skill without player frustration and Puzzle traps.