Tag Archives: Dungeon Master’s Guide

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

Today, Dungeons & Dragons of matches saving throws to ability scores. But for most of the game’s history, D&D grouped saving throws by 5 sources: spell or staff, wand, death ray or poison, turned to stone, and dragon breath. These categories and the game’s saving throw table made me wonder: What made clerics so resistant to poison? Of all possible threats, why set aside a specific save for being turned to stone? (Also, “stone” isn’t even a source, just shorthand for a list of creatures.) Dragon breath seemed overly specific too, but at least the game’s title featured dragons. And how could the remaining 3 types of save cover every other hazard in a fantastic world?

Gary Gygax based his Chainmail rules on a 1966 pamphlet by Tony Bath titled Rules for Medieval Wargames. In those rules, attackers make a roll to hit, and then defenders roll a “saving throw” to see if their armor protects them. The heavier the armor, the easier the save.

Attack rolls in Dungeons & Dragons combine Bath’s to-hit roll and saving throw. But Gary reused the name “saving throw” for another, similar purpose. This rework begin in Chainmail, the mass-battle rules that formed the basis for D&D. In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so successful attacks destroyed units. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Chainmail’s rules for spells, magical attacks, and similar hazards led to saving throws in original D&D. The first Dungeon Master’s Guide explained the concept. “Because the player character is all-important, he or she must always—or nearly always—have a chance, no matter how small, of somehow escaping what otherwise be would be inevitable destruction.”

“Someone once criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous,” Gary wrote. “Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from a blast of red dragon’s breath? Why not? I replied. Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding some way to be free of the fetters. Why not?” Saving throws grant a last chance, but they leave the details of why a save worked to the storytelling of the player and DM. The brilliance of hit points comes from their abstraction, and in original D&D saves are just as abstract as hit points.

Chainmail only includes saves for 4 effects: dragon breath, basilisk gaze, spider poison, and spells (just fireball and lightning). Original D&D turned those 4 saves into categories, and then added “wands” as a 5th.

The detailed numbers in the saving throw table suggest that Gary set saves to simulate nuances of the game world. However, the original saving-throw table reveals no nuances and few patterns. Fighters grow to become the best at dragon slaying. Wizards gain the best spell saves and so become best at dueling other spellcasters. But why, say, should magic users boast the best resistance to petrification? And why does the death ray from a Finger of Death spell get grouped with poison rather than staying in the tougher spell category? Apparently, when Gary Gygax told players to save or die, he also gave them a break. Go figure.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the revamped saving-throw matrix reveals more patterns.

Clerics show the best saves versus paralyzation, poison, and death magic. Perhaps divine favor helps spare them from death.

Magic users start with the best saves and end with the worst. Did Gary intend to help low-level mages and to balance high-level wizards?

Fighters start with the worst saves and end with the best. Was this designed to balance the class, or just to simulate the resilience of a front-line survivor?

Although the saving throw categories lasted 25 years, these types proved clumsy.

As D&D added countless threats, the designers folded them into the same 5 categories descended from Chainmail. For dungeon masters, these peculiar categories made guesswork of choosing the right save for a new effect.

In AD&D, characters with high wisdom or dexterity gained bonuses to saves that demanded willpower or agility. But neither bonus matched a saving-throw category. The bonuses could apply to some saves in multiple categories. Remembering these bonuses—and sometimes gaining the DM’s approval to use them—added a awkward extra step.

Third edition switched to grouping saving throws by the aptitude needed to survive the danger. Now a high wisdom or dexterity cleanly benefited will or reflex saves. Finally, a high constitution helped shake the effect of poison.

The switch made saving throws simpler, but they became less abstract. The odds of someone chained to a rock using quick reflexes to survive dragon fire seemed lower than ever—low odds that fifth edition simulates by imposing disadvantage on a restrained character’s dexterity save.

When I imagine someone making a reflex or dexterity save, I picture someone leaping and tumbling from rushing flames. Then I look at the battle map and see a figure in the same square. In my overly-complicated version of D&D, evasion would make targets move out of an area of effect.

Next: Fourth edition proved D&D works without saving throws, so why did they come back?

Basic and Advanced—Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game? (Part 5)

Late in the spring of 1976, Gary Gygax started work on a complete revision of Dungeons & Dragons. In Gygax’s TSR office, he and collaborator Tim Kask cut up several old copies of the D&D rules—copies much like the one that recently sold for $22,100 on ebay.

“The first day,” Kask recalled, “We sat with legal pads and dissected the elements of the game into various categories: combat, characters, magic, monsters, artifacts, spells, abilities, and on and on.”

They tacked rules clippings to bulletin boards, sorting them by category. “Then, category by category, we examined the game,” Kask wrote. “We looked for loopholes, inconsistencies and instances of what I’ll call ‘game-illogic.’ We looked at balance issues.” As they tinkered with hit-point totals and with the damage inflicted by weapons and spells, they playtested hundreds of battles.

After seven or eight days consumed by the work, Gygax and Kask produced a plan for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

They planned for three AD&D books that roughly matched the three booklets in the original box set. Men & Magic became the Player’s Handbook, Monsters & Treasure became the Monster Manual, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventure became the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

To actually write the books, Gygax needed years. He wanted hardcovers, but the expense of printing just one title would stretch TSR’s resources. Sales of the first title had to pay for the second, and the second for the third. If gamers chose not to splurge on pricey hardcovers—if they kept photocopying the original rules or if they turned to imitators—then TSR might sink.

Gygax chose to write the Monster Manual first. He figured that current players of the game could use new monsters with few adjustments. Also, the book’s design made writing simple. Every day, between other duties, Gygax would write monsters and throw the stats into a box for employee Mike Carr to collect and type.

When J. Eric Holmes’ introductory manuscript reached TSR, Gygax faced another decision. The new Basic Set would only take characters to level 3. Where should they go next? “Sending them into the morass of ‘Original’ D&D put us back on square one, with all the attendant problems of rules questions, misinterpretations, and wildly divergent play,” Gygax wrote in the March 1980 issue of Dragon. “Would it be better to direct them to AD&D, even if it meant throwing out what they had begun with the Basic Set and making them start a fresh? Faced with a choice between chaos and a clean slate, we opted for the latter.” This explanation comes from 1980, when Gygax had other reasons for claiming that AD&D stood as a different game.

In the summer of 1977, when TSR had a manuscript for basic rules and just outlines for a Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, did Gary plan to create incompatible games?

He made a bid for compatibility. “Pieces and parts of the various components of AD&D were grafted into the Basic Set rules manuscript so that D&D would be more compatible with the Advanced game. Readers were directed to AD&D throughout the Basic Set.” His sales plan for the AD&D Monster Manual depended on players using it in their original D&D games.

But Gygax also expected differences. He and Kask had already tweaked some spells, damage, and hit point numbers. Because the Thief class highlighted the inconsistency where non-humans could treat their race as a class or could adopt a class, Gygax probably planned AD&D’s complete separation of race and class all along.

In a 2005 comment, Gygax wrote that he never intended the Holmes Basic Set to serve as in introduction to AD&D, and that he never intended to meld the two games.  But after decades of saying that AD&D was a separate game, perhaps his claim pushed aside any memory of his original plan. I suspect that if basic D&D had started as something more than introduction, TSR would have released an Expert Set in 1978. Instead, the expert rules came in 1981 when TSR needed them to bolster a legal case.

In the end, AD&D never proved as different as Gygax claimed. His new version of D&D remained roughly compatible with the original. Supposedly, AD&D featured strict rules while original D&D featured room for customization, but everyone—even Gygax—changed and ignored AD&D rules to suit their tastes. Later, Gygax wrote, “I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rules books except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

Next: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games (Part 1)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetIn the fall of 1977, I found a copy of the blue, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set and devoured the rules. The game electrified me, but one thing also baffled me. The rules kept sending me to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS for more rules, classes, spells, monsters, and on and on. I wanted to feast on ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS right now—except it did not exist yet. A few months later, the new AD&D Monster Manual reached the hobby shop alongside a “Collector’s Edition” of the original D&D rules. The Monster Manual proved as exciting as the Basic Set, but the original rules puzzled me. Their explanations rarely made sense. What did Outdoor Survival or Chainmail have to do with anything? The old rules wasted pages on castle construction, naval combat, and other things that never came up in the game. At least the box included some higher-level spells. For the highest-level spells, I learned that I needed to buy more books.

The AD&D Player’s Handbook would not reach stores until the next summer. That book collected all the game’s classes and spells, but lacked most combat rules. For those, D&D fans needed to wait another year, until the summer of 1979. Until then, we blended the rules sets, combining the combat system in that Basic Set with the monsters and characters in AD&D with the magic items in the original books.

All these rules mixed together well enough that I failed to notice the seams. When Gary Gygax printed an editorial in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon, his claims baffled me. “ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a different game. Readers please take note! It is neither an expansion nor a revision of the old game, it is a new game.”

After almost two years blending three sets of D&D rules, I could not imagine why Gygax chose to argue this point, but he kept at it.

“It is necessary that all adventure gaming fans be absolutely aware that there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers.”

To me, Gygax’s claims seemed silly. Even though his editorial reached me at about the same time as the Dungeon Master’s Guide, my friends kept playing as before. Nobody played AD&D by the book; we picked the rules that suited us.

Years later, I would learn the reasons for Gygax’s puzzling insistence.

Next: D&D’s new audience versus its original rules

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

When I got my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I first looked at topics that overlap with posts I plan for this blog. If the DMG already said it, I will work on something else. Turns out, as good as the book is, I still have things to add.

In chapter 3, “Creating Adventures,” the book lists “Elements of a Great Adventure.” The list covers familiar ground, but one entry surprised me. Great adventures should put a clear focus of the present. “Instead of dealing with what happened in the past, an adventure should focus on describing the present situation.” The author wisely lists positive elements to aim toward, rather than negatives to avoid, but I see the negative: backstory. Avoid weighing your adventure with history and background that players either cannot see or don’t care about. This surprised me because Dungeon magazine once ranked as the number one perpetrator of excessive backstory.

Dungeon magazine 25For a paragon of superfluous backstory, see this room description from Dungeon 25. “Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.” The description could just list “refuse and rusty, unusable equipment,” but adds 100 words of fluff that cannot possibly come into play.

The quote comes via Bryce Lynch’s crabby, entertaining reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures on tenfootpole.org.

Of course, most backstory appears in the front of adventures under the heading “Adventure Background,” and starting with the words, “A century ago…,” followed by three more pages of background. For anything more complicated than goblin raiders, authors feel obligated to start their background a millennium ago.

Some backstory improves a game. Anyone building a world—or just a dungeon—must imagine the history of the place to make it consistent. Creating a backstory can inspire ideas. When players notice a little history, the game world feels more connected and vibrant.

But adventures never arrive light on backstory. I feel annoyed when an adventure makes me trudge through pages of phony history to run a game session. Judging by Bryce Lynch’s reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures, I feel pretty sure backstory killed his parents.

Why do authors weigh down adventures with superfluous backstory? I count three reasons:

  • Forgetting that adventures exist to be played. Unnecessary backstory seemed to peak in the era of the campaign setting, what James Maliszewski calls D&D’s Bronze Age (1990-1995). During this era, TSR seemed to produce products to be read more than played. They published seven campaign settings supported by mountains of supporting material and novels. Nobody could play a fraction of it all. If an adventure exists more to be read than played, then backstory adds as much as playable content.
    I have the theory that the folks who write role-playing adventures do it because they like to write. I know, crazy. You would think they would do it for the cash and girls. Some writers seem to discover that simply writing RPG products scratches the same creative itch that once led them to play role-playing games. Over time, the writing assignments pile up, their gaming buddies move on, and these writers find themselves writing for role-playing games, but not playing them. During this same bronze age, I seem to recall a lot of designers admitting that they no longer played the games they wrote for.
  • An obligation to justify the elements of the adventure. Dungeons have changed from the original monster hotels peppered with rooms plucked from a lethal funhouse. Even in a fantasy world, players and DMs expect things to make sense. In Backstory and Adventure Design, Gus L writes, “One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.” In this spirit, I offered “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests.”
    Remember when your math teacher insisted that you show your work? I’m a DM. I just want answers—just the history that enhances play. I appreciate if you can justify every detail of an adventure with some torturous back story, but you can keep most of it to yourself. I don’t need the history of Krypton to enjoy a Superman tale.

    When your creative process leads you to create an elaborate history that the players will never learn, the game will still benefit. An unseen backstory will inspire telling details that make the game world more vivid. That history will lend the setting and characters a consistency that they would otherwise lack. 
  • A desire to share the creative work that led to the adventure. Most authors who create a detailed history as part of their creative process cannot bear to leave it untold. So they write thousands of words under “Adventure Background” and force me to sift the nuggets that will enter play. Like every writer, adventure authors must murder their darlings. (Or at least put them in colored insets as I do.)

Next: When and how to introduce backstory

How I learned to care (a little) less about what PCs have in hand

Until the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, players hardly worried about what their characters had in hand during battle. Since then, the game’s designers have tried and failed to free players from needing to keep track. What your character held only started to matter when a expanding number of options met a much shorter combat round.

Expanding options

When Dungeons & Dragons appeared in 1974, no one worried about what characters had in their hands. Two-handed weapons dealt the same 1d6 damage as lighter arms, so you may as well carry a shield if you could. The rules presented no options for wielding two weapons. No one needed to worry about how their elves managed to cast spells while wielding a sword and shield, because elves could only switch from fighting man to magic user “from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game.” Besides, the requirement to speak and gesture would not enter the game for three more years.

In 1975, the Greyhawk supplement distinguished weapons with different damage dice. Now fighters could opt to use a two-handed sword for greater damage or to keep their shield and wield a regular sword. Gary Gygax presumes his audience of grognards will know that a halberd, for example, requires two hands. Even today, the rules do not mention that you cannot equip a shield and wield a two-handed weapon, because the designers assume everyone knows. (Although, they mention that you can only benefit from one shield at a time.)

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary introduced the option to fight with a weapon in each hand, but with penalties to each attack. Then in 1985, Unearthed Arcana opened the way for drow player characters. “Dark elves…may fight with two weapons without penalty provided each weapon may be easily wielded in one hand.” In the wake of Unearthed Arcana, author R. A. Salvatore created the ranger Drizzt, who could wield two blades due to his drow heritage.

The Crystal ShardI’m convinced that between Drizzt’s first appearance in The Crystal Shard (1988) and the introduction of second-edition AD&D in 1989, the two-weapon fighting ability jumped from drow to rangers, with Drizzt as the carrier. Second-edition author David “Zeb” Cook disagrees, “I’m not sure where the ranger took shape, though I know it wasn’t an imposition because of Drizzt. It was more to make them distinct and it fit with the style and image.”

But while Zeb led the second-edition design, many others contributed. A two-weapon ranger lacks any fictional inspiration other than Drizzt. Most likely, someone introduced the two-weapon style to rangers to put Drizzt within the rules, without realizing that his ability sprang from the drow race. Or perhaps, some designer simply liked how Drizzt’s scimitars fit the ranger class’s “style and image.”

The 6-second round

In AD&D, no one paid attention to how a spellcasting, two-weapon ranger managed to free a hand to cast, or how much time he needed to sheath both swords and draw a bow. Combat rounds lasted a full minute, and offered plenty of time to exchange gear. On page 61 of 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “One-minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of play choice with the minimum of complication. The system assumes much activity during the course of each round.”

The Adventures of Robin HoodGary modeled the round after the feints, maneuvering, and unsuccessful attacks seen in the climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Still, players imagined rounds as a simple exchange of blows. One minute seemed far too long for that, and no one could explain why a bowman could only fire once per minute. In response, Gary devoted half of page 61 to defending the minute-long round.

Nonetheless, Basic D&D always held to 10-second rounds, and then third-edition D&D shrunk the round to 6 seconds. This fitted what players imagined, but it offered far less time to maneuver. As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action.

In actual play, few players paid much attention to what their characters held. For example, they typically ignored the two move actions required to swap a bow for a sword. The actions may have better simulated the activity of a 6-second round, but the accounting added no fun.

Making the rules match play

Surely, the fifth-edition designers noticed that few players bothered tracking the
actions required to switch weaponry, spell components, and so on. They noticed that players who performed the accounting found no fun in it. So the designers attempted make the rules match the way players obviously wanted to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and gear. In addition to your move and action, “You can also interact with one object of feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action.

If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action.

The “free” action to manipulate one object may seem the same as fourth edition’s minor action, but if offers one important advantage: it plays faster. In fourth edition, players learned to tick off their actions as they used them. When they reached the end of their turn, they often realized that they still had a minor action to spend. Somehow, that unspent minor action seemed precious. It’s an action and I only get one! So they would pause to think of some way to spend it. I will never get back the hours I wasted watching players try to find dream up uses for their minor actions. Turning a minor action into something “free” makes it something players can ignore without angst.

But the one, free action fails to offer enough latitude to let players do things like sling a bow, draw a sword, and then make an attack, all in one turn. On September 9, designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Without a special feature or feat, an Attack action could include sheathing or drawing a weapon, not both.” I understand the need for such a strict interpretation. I never want to hear, “Every turn, after I fire an arrow, I draw my sword in case I have a chance to make an opportunity attack.”

In practice, most players will switch weapons without a thought to the actions required, and without trying to pull any shenanigans. As a dungeon master, you have two choices: You can attempt to enforce a strict action economy, and tolerate the eye-rolling of players who dislike pedantic lectures on the rules. Or you can grant players some latitude and assume that perhaps the ranger saw the approaching goblins and slung her bow on her last turn, before drawing her blades on the current turn. We all know that turns exist to make the continuous action of the round playable. Perhaps the activity of the last turn blurs a bit with the next. However, when rules lawyers want to use a reaction, they have the same weapons in hand as when they ended their turn.

Related: Sky Roy at Bright Cape Gamer follows up on this subject and suggests a bit of “cinematic flexibility.”

Character roles appear in 4th edition D&D, disappear in 5th

In original D&D, thieves ranked as the least effective character on the battlefield. However, when the party explored, thieves took the biggest role. Early D&D players spent most of their time exploring, so who cared if thieves only rarely saw a chance to backstab?

In fourth edition, such a trade off would never suffice. The edition was optimized to allow characters to show off stunts and powers in dynamic fights. Designer Rob Heinsoo wrote of the perspective he gained playing a 3E bard and “singing from offstage, reminding everyone not to forget the +1 or +2 bonuses.” Heinsoo resolved to keep all 4E characters onstage. In the Design & Development article PC Roles, he wrote, “When Andy (Collins), James (Wyatt), and I put together the basic structure of 4th Edition, we started with the conviction that we would make sure every character class filled a crucial role in the player character group.”

This goal led to the creation of character class roles.

Wizards Presents Races and ClassesIn Wizards Presents Races and Classes, Rich Baker wrote, “One of the first things we decided to tackle in redesigning D&D’s character classes was identifying appropriate class roles. in other words, every class should have all the tools it needs to fill a specific job in the adventuring party.”

To make sure that all characters could succeed at their roles, the designers created formulas for each role that determined things like damage output, expected armor class, and healing capacity. Then they built the classes to meet these specifications.

Through the life of the edition, these parameters proved a bit off, revealing some roles as more useful than others. Fourth edition showed that only the striker role really mattered, because nothing prevents damage as well as killing monsters quickly, and no condition hampers enemies as well as dead.

Roles succeeded at one thing: They told players what each class did best in combat. By choosing a role, players decided what they would do in a fight—healing, damaging enemies, or protecting allies. Without roles, a 4E novice might wrongly suppose that a warrior would do a lot of damage, and fail to select a nature-loving ranger or a sneaky thief for maximum damage output.

Rob Heinsoo wrote, “4th Edition has mechanics that allow groups that want to function without a Leader, or without a member of the other three roles, to persevere. Adventuring is usually easier if the group includes a Leader, a Defender, a Striker, and a Controller, but none of the four roles is absolutely essential.” For the first time in D&D, an effective party could make do without a cleric or other healer. Also, healers could heal and still use their standard actions to attack, something every D&D player enjoys. Healers in 4E never feel torn between using actions and spells to heal, and using them to smite evil. This counted as a win for the 4E design, and counts as a virtue lost in the fifth edition.

Ironically, while roles sharply defined the tactical job of each class, 4E’s design made the classes interchangeable off the battlefield. The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide encouraged DMs to skip to the good parts of the game by building adventures from a series of combat encounters and skill challenges. Characters’ roles shape their place in combat, but have no effect on skill challenges, or any other part of the game.

Outside of combat, all 4E characters contribute by making skill checks. Your character’s favored skill checks may differ from the next guy’s, but the rules advise dungeon masters to allow a wide variety of skills so every character can help. To guarantee that everyone contributed, the original skill challenge had players rolling initiative and taking turns. That rule soon fell by the wayside, but it shows the designers’ commitment to making all classes play alike off the battlefield. To further level play, most 4E spellcasters lack magic that helps outside of combat, a big change from previous editions.

D&D’s fifth edition dispenses with formulaic roles and with classes designed to measure up to a role’s target numbers. This affects the new game less than it would 4E. In the new edition, combat encounters no longer dominate time spent playing. D&D’s fifth edition bolsters the game’s interaction and exploration pillars to balance with combat. With more time to shine at diplomacy, the bard may not mind a reduced role in combat. With time to lead in exploration, the rogue might not mind retiring as the damage-per-round champion.

The real benefit of roles came from helping players understand what their character would do best in combat. This benefit can come without formal roles. The class descriptions simply need to make each classes’ tactical strengths and weaknesses clear.

Game masters guides fail to give perception enough attention

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, perception worked by a simple system: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. This method has advantages: It rewards player skill and ingenuity and allows the players to engage with the game world. The features of a location become more than fluff to be glossed over in favor of a search check.

The Hack & Slash blog makes a case that the say-where-you-look method should be the only method.

For all these advantages, the say-where-you-look method suffers a few limitations:

  • It leads to tedium as players spell out how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object the game master mentions.
  • The characters in the game world (and the game master) have a better image of the location than the players, which can lead to oversights and confusion.
  • Some secrets require keen senses in the game world to spot, such as the secret door that, even in original D&D, required a roll to notice.

Game masters guides: long on mood music, short on observation

In “A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons,” I recapped how D&D added various perception checks to fix these limitations. But the added checks introduced new issues.

I checked.

I checked.

As perception checks invaded the process of spotting and finding, questions arose. Does the DM decide to make a check or the players? Who gets to roll? If everyone rolls, how do I deal with the almost inevitable success, and should I even bother calling for a check? How can I prevent all the rolls from slowing the game? How can I prevent checks from nullifying player skill and ingenuity, and from making the details of the game world irrelevant?

When I scoured the web for advice on running search and perception tasks, I found no shortage of game masters with such questions. But when I referenced a pile of published advice on running a game, I found scant advice. My fat gamemastery tomes include more advice about mood music and snacks at the game table than about perception. Clearly, the writers of dungeon master’s guides operate on intuition and experience and they never consider these questions—or they cannot answer them.

In my next series of posts, I aim to to better. I suggest ways to avoid long recitals of places to look, and to avoid pointless die rolling. My advice for handling player observation and perception favors player ingenuity and choice over rote and chance, while accepting that sometimes observation depends on a character’s skill.

Next: Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

The brilliance of unrealistic hit points

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

After the role-playing game hobby’s first 10 years, designers turned from strict realism and began to design rules that both supported a game’s flavor and encouraged its core activities. Runequest‘s realistically lethal combat systemParanoia 1st edition game fit the fearful world of Call of Cthulhu (1981), as did a new sanity system. Paranoia (1984) built in rules that encouraged a core activity of treachery, while giving each character enough clones to avoid hard feelings.

Today, this innovation carries through stronger then ever. Dungeons and Dragons’ fourth-edition designers saw D&D’s fun in dynamic battles and showing off your character’s flashy capabilities, so they optimized rules that heightened that aspect of the game, possibly to the expense of other aspects.

When Dave Arneson mashed rules for ironclads into Chainmail, he probably gave little thought to supporting the D&D play style that would launch a hobby, but he created some brilliant conventions.

Chainmail gameThe best idea was to give characters steadily increasing hit point totals that “reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage─as indicated by constitution bonuses─and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the ‘sixth sense’ which warns the individual of otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.” (Gary wrote this rationale for hit points in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.)

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D used hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, rising hit points work as an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic─it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep─but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Critics of inflated hit points still had a point. Using hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic can strain credulity, especially when you cannot explain how a character could reasonably reduce the damage he takes. Why should an unconscious or falling hero be so much more durable than a first-level mook?  Why does cure light wounds completely heal the shopkeeper and barely help a legendary hero? Over the years, we’ve seen attempts to patch these problems. For example, I liked how fourth edition’s healing surge value made healing proportional to hit points, so I’m sorry to see D&D Next turn back to the traditional hierarchy of cure spells.

D&D maintains a deliberate vagueness about the injuries inflicted by a hit. This abstraction makes possible D&D’s brilliant use of hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic. Fourth edition exploits the ambiguity more than ever, making plausible the second wind and the healing power of a warlord’s inspiration. 4E explicitly makes hit points as much a measure of resolve as of skill, luck and physical endurance. Damage apparently exists as enough of an abstraction that even if a hit deals damage, it doesn’t necessarily draw blood.

Even as 4E aims for the loosest possible interpretation of a hit, it makes the hit roll more important than in any prior edition. In 4E, melee hits can inflict crippling effects without saves. Just getting hit automatically subjects you to poison, or paralysis, or whatever. In past editions, if the spider bit or the ghoul clawed, you took the damage, but you still got an immediate save.

In the early days of the RPG hobby, many games attempted to fuse D&D’s fantastic setting with a more realistic model of combat damage. Although a few of these games enjoyed success, none recreated the combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing play style pioneered by D&D. At the time, no one seemed to realize that the clever damage-reduction mechanism built into game enabled the game’s play style.

Video game designers figured it out. Virtually every video game that combines fighting with character improvement features D&D-style rising hit points.

Next: Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge

(Part 5 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2’s example skill challenge shows the Dungeon Master responding to each success or failure in the traditional DM role─by telling the players what happens in the game world as a result of their actions.

On page 83, the DMG2 advises dungeon masters that each success or failure should do the following:

  • Introduce a new option that the PCs can pursue.
  • Change the situation, such as sending the PCs to a new location, introducing new NPCs, or adding a complication.
  • Grant the players a tangible congruence for the check’s success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.

This puts the DM back in the DM’s role, but it puts a burden on the DM running the challenge. Before, I just had to determine if a player’s justification for applying a skill made sense. Now I have to respond to each success or failure with an ongoing narrative. That’s okay; that’s the job I signed up for as a DM. But the format for a written skill challenge description remains focused on the skills available to the players and the possible justifications for using them. The format never evolves to give the DM more help spinning a narrative around the challenge.

Just as every failed check leads closer to failure, every successful check overcomes some barrier to success, but reveals a new, tangible obstacle or complication.

So in a well-run skill challenge, the DM faces his own challenge of inventing new complications to thwart the players even as they earn each success. (Sometimes I’m reminded of the infamous babelfish puzzle in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game, where your countless attempts to get the fish each result in it slipping into yet another inaccessible spot.) Written skill challenges sometimes help by suggesting the sorts of obstacles that each skill might overcome, but the written format is far, far from optimal for the task.

Skill challenges also limit the number of successes players can earn with each skill. That guideline remains good. No one wants a boring and repetitive challenge where one character chips away at a problem with the same skill.  But this guideline adds another hurdle for you, as the DM. As you narrate the challenge and pose new complications to meet every success, you must craft situations that invite the skills which remain available, while closing off the avenues that are now blocked. You get extra credit for creating complications that force the characters on the sidelines to participate.

Now we have a challenge for the DM as well as the players. Ironically, while the skill challenge mechanic initially tried to sideline the DM to a secondary role, running a good skill challenge now becomes one of the DM’s most thorny tasks.

I approach the task with a little extra preparation.

When I prepare to run a ready-made skill challenge in a published adventure, I am less interested in the list of recommended skills than in the obstacles and complications that the author says the skills might overcome. With a particularly sketchy challenge, I may list a few obstacles of my own, so I am prepared to present new situations as the players advanced through the challenge. I want specific obstacles that invite more than one solution. You can pick the lock or break down the door.  Obviously, most obstacles are not simple barriers like a locked door. For example, in an investigation skill challenge, a success might reveal a new lead that carries the characters across town to a new obstacle─anything from a cryptic note hidden under a floorboard to a reluctant witness who won’t talk until you eliminate the source of her fear.

Of course, tangible obstacles also invite creative solutions, so be prepared to welcome the players’ ideas, and to mark off successes without any rolls. For more, see my post on player skill without player frustration.

In my preparation, I also consider the setbacks the players might encounter with a failed check. With each failed roll, I want to tell the players exactly how the failure draws their characters closer to a catastrophe.

Despite my preparation, when I run for organized play, I respect the skill challenge the author presents. When my players compare notes with players from the next table, I want my players to say, “Your skill challenge sounds just like ours, but ours seemed like more fun.” (Actually, I want every skill challenge to be more fun. That’s why I’m writing all this.)

Next: an example

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge

(Part 4 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

Just a year after fourth edition’s debut, the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 upended the original skill challenge. The new material makes just one specific revision to the original rules:  It provides new numbers for challenge complexity and difficulty class to address serious problems with skill challenge math.

Beyond the numbers, I suspect the designers sought to remake the skill challenge as much as possible without scrapping the existing rules. The big changes come from original rules that are now ignored, and from advice and examples that completely remake how challenges run at the table.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 strips away the formal game-within-a-game implied by the original skill challenge: The structure of rolling for initiative and taking turns is gone; the new summary contains no mention of it. In the example skill challenge, the players jump in to act as they wish.

I disliked the original, story-game style implied by the original skill challenge rules, and welcomed the new advice. But the core of the original skill challenge rules remained, and some friction existed between those original rules and the recast skill challenge. In this post, I will explore some points of friction, and discuss some ways to overcome them.

Scoring with failed checks discourages broad participation

The 4E designers tried the match the formulas for constructing a combat encounter with similar formulas for a skill challenge. So a skill challenge’s complexity stems from the number and difficulty of successes required─an odd choice in a way. You don’t grant experience in a combat encounter by counting how many attacks score hits.

This scorekeeping works fine when you run a skill challenge as a collaborative storytelling game within a game

In the original skill challenge, every character had a turn, and no one could pass. This forced every player to participate. The new challenge drops the formal structure, leaving the DM with the job of getting everyone involved. The DMG2 helps with advice for involving every character. However, the players know three failed skill checks add up to a failed challenge, so now some players will fight against making any checks for fear of adding to an arbitrary count of failures and contributing to a failed challenge. This stands in total opposition to the original ideal where everyone contributes.

Obviously, some failed skill checks will bring the players closer to a disaster, by alerting the guards, collapsing the tunnel, or whatever. On the other hand, the foreseeable, game-world consequences of some failures do not lead to disaster, yet players worry about attempting, say, an innocuous knowledge check because they metagame the skill challenge.

Hint: You can encourage more players to participate in a skill challenge by forcing the characters to tackle separate tasks simultaneously. For instance, if the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute. Just give the players enough information to know which methods of persuasion will work best on which members of the council.

Scorekeeping may not match game world

In the story-game style of the original skill challenge, the players’ score can exist as a naked artifice of the game, just like the turns the rules forced them to take. I suspect that the original vision of the skill challenge assumed the DM would tell players their score of successes and failures. After all, the players could even keep accurate score themselves. This avoided the need to provide game-world signs of success or failure as the players advanced through the challenge. After the skill challenge finished, you could always concoct a game-world explanation for the challenge’s outcome.

Now on page 83, the DMG2 tells you to “grant the players a tangible congruence for the check’s success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.” (In word choices like “tangible congruence,” Gary’s spirit lives!)

This works best if the challenge’s cause of failure is different from the players’ success. For example, if the players must infiltrate the center of the enemy camp without raising an alarm, then their successes can bring them closer to their goal even as their failures raise suspicion and take them closer to failure. These sorts of challenges create a nice tension as the players draw closer to both victory and defeat.

If moving toward success necessarily moves the players away from failure, then running the challenge poses a problem.

The first Dungeon Masters Guide introduced the skill challenge mechanic with an example where the players attempt to persuade the duke before the duke grows too annoyed to listen.  Good luck role playing the duke’s demeanor as he is poised one success away from helping while also one failure away from banishing the players.

Even worse, if a skill challenge lacks any clear marker of failure, running the challenge presents a problem. The first D&D Encounters season, Halaster’s Last Apprentice, included a challenge where the players seek to find hidden chambers in the Undermountain before they amass the three failures allowed by the rules. Why do three failures end this challenge? Is it because the players grow restless and are now all on their smart phones? The adventure suggests that rival groups might be seeking the lost chambers, but it fails to capitalize on this. The adventure follows the conventional advice by taxing each player a healing surge, and then saying that they found the crypt anyway.

“Why do we lose a healing surge?”

“Well, you know, dungeon stuff.”

Why is the game turning the dungeon stuff into a die-rolling abstraction? I thought some of us liked dungeon stuff.

Hint: You can fix a lot of bad skill challenges by adding time pressure. Every failed attempt wastes time. Too many failures and time runs out. Convince the duke before he is called to the wedding that will cement his alliance with the enemy. Find the hidden crypt before the sun sets and the dead rise.

Next: Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge