Monthly Archives: November 2022

For D&D Travel, Steer Clear Of Rolls Versus Random Punishment

Dungeons & Dragons brings fun from many sources: from acting the roles of characters, from creating stories with friends, and from making choices and seeing their consequences in the game world. This post focuses on that last source of fun: Seeing choices play out, and sometimes surprise us, thanks to D&D’s volatile mix of rules, dice, and the hidden information behind the DM screen.

The choices players make during character creation lead to consequences throughout a character’s career. Every saving throw plays out the consequences of a choice made days or even years ago. But when choices quickly lead to consequences, D&D proves most engrossing. When my choice to play an agile rogue lets me dodge an explosive rune, I feel satisfied, but when I figure a way to trigger the trap from a distance, I feel pleased and engaged.

I once complained how casting the foresight made D&D less fun for me. Foresight erases the effect of a lot of the games choices. I thought gaining advantage on everything would prove fun, but it made the game less entertaining. Rather than making numerous small choices during a session to gain an edge, the wizard makes one choice to cast foresight and the rest matter less.

Originally, players rolling a D&D character faced no choices except for class. Now, players typically control every aspect of character building and most players talk about rolling a character in the same way we talk about dialing a phone. Most players like control over character creation, but that control also tempts designers to create situations that engage numbers on character sheets more than the choices players make in the moment.

Years ago, I played an adventure where the party floated on a raft down river with canyon walls on each side. As we floated, unreachable monsters atop the walls hurled down rocks and we made checks to avoid damage. The situation blocked any choices, so we could only ride along and take our licks.

The adventure’s designer surely hoped for a tense scene with plenty of action as characters race down a river dodging perils. On a movie screen, the sequence might have worked, but at the table it played as string of random punishments—an unwelcome chore.

To be fair, character-building choices factored into the outcome of the scene, but those choices came long ago when we chose how dexterous to make our characters. In a game, the most entertaining choices come in the moment. Character design choices come in second, often a distant second.

Surely some readers see the river raft scene as obviously flawed, but adventures by well-meaning authors include similar roll versus random damage sequences, especially when the party must cross from point A to B. That includes many adventures that I’ve played at conventions. Again, I understand the authors aims. After all, on the cinema screens in their imaginations, the sequences work, and besides authors learn by imitating adventure written by other pros who set similar patterns. Fourth-edition skill challenges often fit that pattern. “I learned it from you.” Sure, skill challenges offered choices, but typically with the obviously correct options of picking the skills with the highest options. Only small children find such decisions compelling.

The roll-versus-random-punishment dynamic often makes travel sequences fall flat. Suppose the party in Aglarond uncovers a lead that prompts a trip to Battledale. The DM decides to make the trip interesting and give a sense of distance by rolling for random encounters along the way. That approach creates a roll-versus-punishment sequence with only one choice: Quit (y/N)? So the party trudges on hoping to resume their story in Battledale soon.

Some might argue my point by recommending better ways to handle the travel sequence. Perfect! None of those better ways include the roll-versus-damage dynamic. They bring choices and the story to the journey, or they cut past the journey.

The 5 Unwritten Goals of the One D&D Rules Update

Six months before then D&D head Ray Winninger announced an new set of Dungeons & Dragons core books for 2024, I predicted the update. I based my prediction on a declaration from the D&D team, which made their top priority “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible.”

To reach that goal, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything featured a new way to distribute ability scores. “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.” New books portrayed “all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways, making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.”

But the 2014 core books still showed an outdated approach, so when the D&D team wrote, “Our priority is to make things right,” predicting new core books seemed easy. I wrote, “By the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release a new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version.”

The rest of my prediction proved wrong, because I expected a speedy, modest update that simply added Tasha’s rules for ability scores and replaced some troublesome spells, class features, and so on with the improved versions already printed in newer books.

Wandering Troubadour by Rudy Siswanto

Given fifth edition’s continuing growth, such a careful update seemed sensible. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their game mastery and their investment in old books. The worst case of a new edition follows the path of fourth edition, where as much as half of the player base split to play Pathfinder, a game that felt more like D&D to its fans. Hypothetically, a disastrous One D&D release could strangle D&D’s burgeoning growth. In D&D management’s nightmare, Matt Mercer dislikes One D&D and opts to stream Critical Role games based on his own fifth edition offshoot called Mattfinder.

Nonetheless, the One D&D playtest packets suggest changes that resemble a new edition. What explains the bolder update that has players using the word “sixth,” even if no one on the D&D team dares?

Some gamers say a major update will sell more books, and that might be true for a replacement to a stagnant edition. A mature roleplaying game with shelves of rule expansions can intimidate potential players, because they feel like they could never catch up. A new edition feels more welcoming. But fifth edition avoided flooding game store shelves with new rules, opting for adventures and settings instead. Besides, the edition continues to gain players at an unprecedented rate.

Anyway, a careful refresh would have led millions of gamers to replace the books already on their shelves, vaulting a trio of D&D books to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Such an update would skip One D&D’s 18-month playtest or any risk of slowing sales as some gamers spend 18 months avoiding purchases ahead of the new release.

Some gamers suspect that the designers aim to create a game that works better online. After all, One D&D includes a Digital Play Experience that “will be a virtual play space that allows Dungeon Masters to create truly immersive campaigns and players to enjoy a D&D experience where we offload a lot of the rules referencing.” Offloading “referencing” could mean nothing more than what players gain from D&D Beyond, but a virtual tabletop would probably add automation like attack buttons that roll to hit and total damage. A few playtest rules would prove easier to automate. For example, the Hide action simplifies sneaking to just a DC 15 Dexterity Check (Stealth). That rule’s programmer can take an early lunch.

Still, just as many playtest rules replace a rule easy for computers with one easier for humans. For example, the Special Speeds rule eliminates the math of mixing flying and climbing with regular movement. No computer struggles with the old math. The Jump action seems designed to free designer Jeremy Crawford from explaining how to include a jump in a Move action. Computers could handle the original rule effortlessly. I see no signs that the revision systematically favors play on a VTT. It systematically favors sparing Jeremy from answering the same damn questions about sneaking. Some changes match the game rules to the way players misunderstand the 2014 rules. This category includes changes like eliminating critical hits for attack spells and making Heroic Inspiration a re-roll.

Lead designer Jeremy Crawford says he keeps a list of pain points and sources of confusion in D&D. Likely the aggressive One D&D update stems from that list and similar lists from other designers. None of this makes the 2014 edition a bad game, but 8 years of play surfaces ample opportunities for improvement. Happily, based on the playtest, the designers’ lists match most of the pain points I would include in a list of my own—or in my 10 years of blog posts.

So just two playtest packets include improvements to exhaustion, dual-weapon fighting, Hunter’s Mark, Guidance, and much more. All these updates replace rules in the 2014 Player’s Handbook without breaking any of the game’s existing adventures or subsequent character options.

The One D&D team promises new core books compatible with the other fifth edition books. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed,” and that goal applies to One D&D too. Still, if your definition of “compatible” means new classes and character features that equal the power of the 2014 versions, then One D&D will disappoint you. On average, One D&D characters and feats bring more power, but surely not as much power as some characters optimized for the 2014 rules. When I changed my human fighter with Great Weapon Fighter and Polearm Master to the playtest rules, his power plunged.

So, most of the playtest changes come from 4 goals, listed by importance from the essential number 1 to a number 4 that makes the D&D Sage’s life easier.

  • Make D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
  • Keep One D&D compatible with existing adventures and new class options.
  • Fix pain points revealed by 8 years of play.
  • Avoid common questions and points of confusion prompted by the current rules.

The playtest rules show one more goal that I rate as the least important, but with One D&D opening the door to other, vital changes, the designers gain cover for working a fifth goal:

  • Adjust the game to the tastes of the current design team and how they read the tastes of D&D players

For example, the 2014 design team sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Now, the idea of pairing backgrounds with feats and mechanical benefits clearly enchants Jeremy Crawford. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” he explains. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Background-based feats appear in the playtest, but make no mistake, recent D&D products show that this change is already set.

Also, the 2014 design team felt comfortable making 1st-level characters as fragile as soap bubbles. After all, players have little investment in new characters. But today’s players more often lavish creative energy on the background and personality of characters, so the playtest offered a rule making new characters a bit harder to kill by preventing monsters from scoring critical hits. I suspect this critical hit rule tested poorly, so look for different tweaks that make new characters more durable.

I suspect the rules for awarding heroic inspiration on 5% of d20 rolls fits goal 5, although I’m unable to explain what the designers hope to achieve. Perhaps the inspiration rule takes us closer to a game where characters just show off their abilities on the way to easy success. Over 8 years, the design team has shown less and less appetite for letting characters fail.

Perhaps I could do without goal number 5, but the D&D team would say that if a change fails to match the tastes of D&D players, then playtest feedback will block it.