Tag Archives: immersion

Rules vs. Immersion, Assistance, Aurania and More From the Comment Section

When I launched DMDavid.com, I considered disabling the comments. I worried that the comment section would fill will stupid and insulting responses. I’ve heard that can happen on the Internet. Still, I left comments on, and they proved one of most rewarding parts of writing this blog. My readers made smart and insightful replies. Sometimes commenters who disagreed with my posts swayed my opinions. Often I learned.

I used to join the discussions more than I do now. I used to make time to write a post, warm up by replying to a few comments, and then run short of time. My posting schedule lapsed, and I felt disappointed. Still, I want to reply. So today, I try a solution. The post features replies to some recent reader comments. It won’t lure casual readers from Facebook with a provocative headline, but perhaps loyal readers will enjoy it. I’ve subscribed to magazines where I most enjoyed the letters section and the editor’s replies. I hope to capture some of that.

Tell me, would you like to see future dips into the comments section?

Rob Paul Davis wrote:

I do require a roll for Assists. Succeed, and the player gets a +2 on the roll, fail and it’s a -2.

When new fifth-edition players learn the rules for advantage and disadvantage, they tend to assume that cover imposes disadvantage. The advantage/disadvantage rule’s elegance leads to that assumption, and that reveals the brilliance of the rule. But the designers wanted degrees of cover and wanted cover to stack with advantage and disadvantage, so cover imposes a -2/-5 penalty.

I wonder if a similar approach would improve assistance. After all, experienced players tend to assist frequently, and that makes other advantages disappear. Most situations merit a +2 bonus, while extraordinary aid could gain a +5 bonus.

alphastream wrote:

For assisting, I often find players will test out a DM the first time. With a new table I’ll usually look for them to give me a reason for why they are offering help. If it’s just another set of eyes, I’ll say that in this situation additional persons won’t provide advantage. After that, it’s easier to involve them and not have it become an assumption. And, I think that the more players assume it will usually be just an individual, the more that individuals are getting the spotlight. Otherwise, it can feel like everyone is always jumping on top of the person who proposed doing something and taking away the spotlight. A common example is where someone says, “does this look magical,” and another player yells, “I’ll make an Arcana check.” That’s a prime case where I’ll say to the second person, “Hold on, the first player is already doing that.” Over time, the table learns that they don’t have to jump onto someone else’s idea… they will get their own time to shine later if they stay engaged.

Assisting and especially checks that anyone can attempt all tend to take attention from players who deserve it. We’ve all seen a high roll let a character, say, with an 8 intelligence steal the spotlight from the party’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Players who invest in talents deserve to flaunt them, but when everyone rolls, a lucky result tends to win. I always work to find reasons to limit checks to fewer players. As you suggest, players eventually learn not to jump in.

Something I’ll often do when a second player wants to help is ask them how they are doing so, and then have both players roll. I’ll take the highest die roll, but the primary player is making the check – basically rolling with advantage but the helping player is rolling the second die. It lets more people roll and gives that feeling of helping.

Brilliant! Many times, I’ve seen long-time players rise to assist, start to roll, and then realize that unlike in past editions, assistance requires no roll. The helper visibly deflates. People like to roll. Letting the helper roll the advantage die turns the help into a tangible deed.

Daniel Boggs wrote:

Rules are Boring.

When I run games for my home group or at conventions I try to build an atmosphere of suspense and exploration, and avoid talking numbers and rules except when needed. Usually that means the only time numbers are discussed are in combat, usually the player telling me the result of a roll or a particular stat on their sheet. The advice I try to follow – and I can think of no better guide – is that given by Jaquays in her Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, especially chapter 3, Pacing and Theatrics.

This comment led me to take the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide from my shelf. The book features cover-to-cover DM advice co-authored by Jennell Jaquays. To lure buyers, TSR felt willing to give the guide a misleading title, and still somehow settled on something stuffy and dull. The title never convinced me to read the book. Don’t judge me until you read all your game books. Now, I’ve decided to read the guide ASAP.

As for rules and immersion, see the next comment.

Ilbranteloth wrote:

All too often I find an experienced player joining my campaign “playing to the rules.’ That is, they expect the rules to tell them what they can do, and don’t consider that there are lots of other options. The new players, though, aren’t constrained by that. And most of the time I find that it’s the new players that “teach” the experienced players that I don’t limit you to what the rules say you “can do.”

Some of the joy of playing with newer Dungeons & Dragons players comes from seeing them engage the game world without thinking of rules. All of us old grognards need to foster that approach. Your style encourages immersion and freedom.

Every interview with a D&D personality seems to start with, “How did you start playing?” Almost always, the person tells of being handed a character sheet and dropping in a game with no knowledge of the rules. They can hardly follow the game, but they still have the time of their lives. Part of the D&D’s magic is that you can play it—and love it—without knowing any rules. The dungeon master describes a situation, and you just imagine what your character would do. If a goblin attacks, just say, “I hit him with my axe.” You can immerse yourself in your character without thinking of the rules.

I found lots to like in fourth sedation, but to me, the edition faltered when it required mastery of the rules to play a character. See Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1.

That said, the game’s numbers help communicate the game world to the players. Knowing the rules lets players understand the likely outcomes of their actions, and that helps players act with confidence.

alphastream wrote:

We can see many players trying to gain advantage (not sneak attack) on every single attack even though they have emerged from hiding to attack. That confusion extends even to many of the game’s designers when you ask them about it!

Correct me if I’m wrong about this: The fifth-edition designers judged that hiding, and then popping up to attack from range qualifies as attacking while hidden. This gains advantage. The attack reveals the rogue, but rogues can drop down and hide again for their next turn. Meanwhile, moving from hiding to make a melee attack reveals the rogue, foiling the advantage of hiding.

How much do the designers love ranged attackers? Attacking from range offers an intrinsic advantage. Plus, the game grants benefits to ranged attackers, and then offers feats that erase any disadvantages. Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert would be strong without erasing cover and penalties for ranged attacks from melee. Don’t get me started.

Daniel Boggs traced the the thief class to it’s origin:

Just as an FYI, Switzer didn’t invent the class. it was actually Daniel Wagner, who played in the same group as Switzer. Wagner is one of the authors of The Manual of Aurania. There’s a pretty in depth discussion on the topic with Mr. Wagner here: http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/9279/manual-aurania

In 1976, a game group attached to Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica gathered new monsters, treasures, races, and classes from their Aurania campaign into a booklet they sold for 3 dollars. The book probably rates as the first unofficial, published supplement for D&D. The manual’s introduction states that “several ideas” from Aurania “were outright stolen and soon appeared in published form.” When Switzer shared Daniel Wagner’s thief idea, Gary Gygax still held to the wargaming culture where everyone in a tiny community shared ideas and no one made more than lunch money. Gary first presented the thief in an amateur zine and there he tried to give credit. Between 1974 and 1976, the estimated value of the thief idea climbed.

Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?

Have you heard of dungeon masters who keep character sheets from players and who make all the die rolls? Instead of revealing hit points, these DMs say, “Your character feels badly injured and close to death.”

To improve a TV audience’s immersion and to avoid numbers, the Dungeons & Dragons games on Community adopted this style. The creator of Community, Dan Harmon, brought this style to his HarmonQuest live-play show. For performance, the style makes sense.

Some real DMs also took the style for simulation and immersion. They explained that the characters’ don’t know their numbers, so why should their characters? In theory, hiding the mechanical guts of the game lets players focus on the game world and on immersing themselves in their characters.

In practice, when a DM takes such measures, players see a control freak. Players worry that the DM will fudge numbers to force a plot. But even when players trust their DM’s impartiality, the hidden numbers create discomfort. The game rules serve as the physics of the characters’ world. When the DM hides numbers and mechanics, the players lose some ability to make good choices for their characters. They feel robbed of control.

Also, everyone likes to roll their own dice.

Aside from performing D&D for an audience, most stories of DMs hiding the game’s numbers date from role playing’s early days. Then, gamers experimented with styles of play that no longer seem appealing. In White Dwarf issue 75 from 1986, an article titled “Gamemanship” recommended preventing players from reading the game rules. “Players who haven’t read the rules will be unable to spring anything ‘new’ on you.” The author, Martin Hytch, aims for better role playing, but he seems like a control freak.

Nowadays, tales of DMs who hide the game’s numbers from players seem like legend. Any DMs committed to the style probably wonder why no one wants to join their game.

But every DM weighs how many game numbers to share with players. My research turned up contemporary game masters willing to hide a character’s hit points from their players.

Martin Hytch would approve. “Telling a fighter he has lost eleven hit points can have a totally different effect if the DM says, ‘The beast strikes you in the face, breaking your nose.’” I suspect few players share Martin’s devotion to immersion.

A mere description of damage leaves players confused about their characters’ conditions. The broken-nose example falls particularly short. In the DM’s estimation, does the injury leave a character halfway to death, or just a little battered? The DM knows. In the game world, the fighter knows. Only the player feels baffled.

The characters see, hear, smell, and touch the game world. They sense more of their world than even the most vivid description shows the players. The characters bring years of training and experience. They know nothing of hit points, but hit point numbers provide a measure to bridge the information gap between a character living the battle and the player at the table.

DMs rarely hide hit-point and damage numbers from players, but most DMs conceal difficulty classes. Until recently, I kept DCs to myself, but now I typically share them.

As with hit points, the difficulty class number helps span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and a player learning from a DM’s description. When a rogue decides whether to climb a wall, she can see the bricks, mortar, and slick condensation. She can compare to walls she has climbed. At the kitchen table, a DC just sums a character’s experience.

Some folks object to sharing DC numbers because they feel numbers hinder immersion. But hiding the DC leaves plenty of immersion-foiling game in the check. The player still looks up numbers on the character sheet. They still roll a dice and add the result to a number on their character sheet. What’s another number?

In games like Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS, players make checks by rolling under a skill number. These games put a chance of success on the character sheet and make hiding difficulties cumbersome. These games still thrive. Even though players almost always know their chance of success, no one accuses Call of Cthulhu of undermining immersion.

Characters might have more trouble telling the odds of making a saving throw than the difficulty of a jump or climb, but the benefits of revealing save DCs encourage me to reveal them too.

Especially with a high-stakes save, revealing a DC heightens the drama of a die roll. When a character’s fate rests on a roll, when a roll seizes the table’s attention, a player can figure the number they need before throwing the die. A known DC tells players that the DM can’t fudge the line between success and failure. Then the moment the die lands, everyone knows the outcome without asking the DM for an interpretation. By revealing a DC, the DM sides with the players. No one sees where the next roll will take the game. Only the dice decide.

As a DM, revealing a DC frees me from any urge to nudge the narrative by moving a hidden target to land a success or failure. My transparency shows players that their characters’ fate rests on their choices and the luck of the die rather than on a DM’s whims.

Revealing DCs also speeds those situations where several players need to make a roll. Instead of forcing each player to report their role to learn an outcome, just announce DC and let them figure the result.

None of this applies when the characters can’t know the difficulty of a task. Don’t reveal DCs for checks…

  • made to gain information using skills like Insight and Perception.
  • involving a non-player character’s state of mind, such as with Persuasion and Deception.
  • where characters know too little to estimate a difficulty.

The rest of the time, try sharing DCs. I think it makes my game better.

Confidence game: Why faking confidence makes you a better game master

Some game masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Confidence leaves these GMs blind to their flaws.

I should know. As a GM, I have been that confident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lack of confidence makes me a better game master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert GMs name the qualities of a good GM, they often cite confidence. I agree 100%.

As a game master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a game master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For game masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No game master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a game master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In the 4th-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the GM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the GM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the GM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert game master. A game master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

Two reasons D&D Next’s inspiration mechanic fails to inspire me (and why the designers don’t mind)

From what we have seem so far, the Dungeons & Dragons Next design sticks close the game’s tradition. This makes the inspiration mechanic the design’s biggest surprise so far. D&D’s top dog, Mike Mearls, revealed the mechanic in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.”

“When you have your character do something that reflects your character’s personality, goals, or beliefs, the DM can reward you with inspiration.” You can spend inspiration to gain advantage, bank it for later, or pass it to another player.

In the universe of role-playing games, inspiration seems conventional. Plenty of RPGs offer in-game rewards for role playing, but D&D has never goaded players to role play. Fourth edition even encouraged substituting skill checks for role playing so that no one who feels uncomfortable with funny voices must speak in character. While I have seen suggestions that a DM might want to reward good role playing with additional experience points, such options stand outside of D&D’s mainstream.

Champions role-playing game from 1981

Champions role-playing game from 1981

I enjoy role playing and funny voices. I love when players work to tie their characters to the setting, especially when their ideas make the players collaborators in the world building. I favor mechanics such as the one introduced by the Champions role-playing game in 1981, where you could create a more powerful character by adding “disadvantages” like a recurring archenemy or a loved-one sometimes in need of rescue.

Despite this, the inspiration mechanic fails to interest me for two reasons:

  • I’m a dungeon master, not a critic or evaluator. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who scores players’ performances. To players uncomfortable acting in character, I offer encouragement and a safe table, but I will not act as a trainer, handing out boons for role-playing stunts that amuse me. Save that for Shamu.
  • When I play, I dislike metagamey resources. As I explained in “Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1,” when I play a character, I prefer to immerse myself in character. I want to make decisions in character, based on what my character knows about the game world. Inspiration forces an intrusive chunk of the metagame into the fantasy world. With inspiration, I can no longer fully immerse myself in the the character of Jarrek the Hammer, and make decisions by asking, “What would Jarrek do?” Now I must consider whether I should use my inspiration, bank it, or pass it on to another player. Jarrek knows nothing about banking inspiration! Ironically, a mechanic intended to reward role playing discourages character immersion.

At Gen Con, I shared my misgivings with Mike Mearls. He understands my objections, but they don’t bother him. Even though D&D Next won’t brand inspiration as an optional rule, the rules will explain that different DMs may choose to award inspiration in different ways. Some DMs may choose not to award inspiration at all. In other words, inspiration provides a tool that you can use to encourage a chosen style of play, or that you can ignore. This fits D&D Next’s philosophy of creating a game that can support a range of play styles as opposed to the 4E philosophy of creating a game optimized for a single play style.

I have one reservation about Mike’s stance, and that stems from organized play. Players in a program such as Living Forgotten Realms bring expectations about how the game is played. I do most of my dungeon mastering in LFR and other public-play programs. If inspiration exists in the core game, and if players grow to expect it, then I will feel duty-bound to use it in public play. My players will never hear me gripe. Inspiration hardly ranks as the most distasteful game element I’ve welcomed. If inspiration grows into an accepted part of public play, then I will award it by reading the table and granting inspiration for whatever performances inspire the players.

Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1

When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, people would tell me that the game interested them, but that felt intimidated by all the rules. No problem, I explained, you can play without knowing any of the rules. You play a character, like a mighty fighter. The dungeon master describes the situation, and you just imagine what your fighter would do. If a goblin attacks, just say, I hit him with my axe.

The concept pleased me. As a player, you could immerse yourself in being your character without thinking of the rules. At some point in our D&D history, we all enjoyed this style of play, so as the orc bore down on us, we raised our shield and drew our sword. Where instead of studying our list of powers, we think, if I can cut the rope holding that chandelier, I can bring it down on that brute’s head.

We still sometimes frown on the practice of letting the artifice of the game stand in the way of playing in character. You have heard of metagaming. If the DM drops a battle grid on the table, you know a fight will come, but don’t start buffing yourself. Your character suspects nothing.

Then action points appeared with Eberron. We all loved them, even though managing action points forced you out of your character’s head.

With the fourth edition, the designers set a goal of giving each class interesting things to do during combat. Why should only spellcasters gain the fun of managing resources when we can invent resources like daily martial powers and Hunter’s Quarries?  Every player can join the supposed fun. This opened a flood gate.

You could no longer play D&D by simply immersing yourself in your character. The game added too many constructs that lacked any relationship to the game world. Playing your fighter now required an understanding of things like marks and an entire economy of encounter and daily powers that had everything to do with the rules and nothing to do with the game world.  Playing a ranger meant laying down a Hunter’s Quarry that represented nothing but a floating damage bonus.

Most commonly, these sorts of game mechanics are called dissociated mechanics, and some deeper analysis of them exists elsewhere.

The problem with these mechanics extends beyond just the game’s learning curve. They tax anyone who prefers to play by immersing themselves into character. You can no longer enjoy the game inside the head of Roid the fighter, who likes to hit things with an axe. The game forces you to make decisions that you cannot possibly make in character. Why cannot Roid reuse that daily power again today? He has no idea. When can he spend an action point? What’s an action point to Roid?

Let me be clear about two things:

  • I am happy to think about the rules of D&D as I play D&D. However, I dislike when the rules prevent me from making my character’s decisions in character, from immersing myself in the game world.
  • Rules for things like hit points do not count as dissociated mechanics.  Hit points exist as an abstraction of something in the game world, namely your character’s health, fatigue, and morale.

Many players feel perfectly comfortable with dissociated mechanics as long as, looking back, they can explain them as part of the story. So what if an action point represents nothing in the game world–it represents something in the story. To this mindset, perhaps action points are like that surge of energy that brings Rocky off the mat at the end of the final movie bout. Why does Rocky only get that surge in the final fight? He always saves his action point until the end. (You can see the scene where Paulie coaches Rocky to save his action point in the director’s cut.)

I realize that plenty of players feel perfectly content playing the game as a game, and could care less what Rocky or Roid thinks. But why create game rules that interfere with the enjoyment of folks who prefer to dive into their character’s head? Until late in the 3.5 edition, such rules found no place in the D&D tradition. D&D should excel at immersion for the players seeking it.

By the time D&D Essentials reached the market, the game’s designers seemed to have learned a couple of lessons: (1) Not everyone wants to play a character complicated by things like resource management.  (2) You can invent fun abilities for classes such as rogue and ranger without resorting to dissociated mechanics.

Have the designers forgotten lesson number 2?

I want to turn your attention to two mechanics that appear in the D&D next playtest documents. One is unjustly accused of being dissociated, the other guilty as charged.

First I’ll consider the fighter’s combat superiority feat with its expertise die.

As I see it, the expertise die represents a moment of time and attention that the fighter can spend to achieve something extra on the battlefield. The fighter’s round takes the same six seconds as anyone else’s, but his expertise and training slows down the action, making him able to accomplish more. Perhaps the fighter spends an extra instant drawing a bead on an enemy, parrying a blow that would strike an ally, or tripping a foe already unbalanced by a blow.

As such, the expertise die represents something “real” in the imaginary world, and not some meta-game abstraction.

When I first considered this model, I remained bothered by the Deadly Strike maneuver.  When you hit, you may spend an expertise damage to deal extra damage. I imagined a fighter spending an extra instant winding up to deliver a powerful blow. If he missed, through the benevolence of the rules, he somehow regains that instant to use for something else. The do-over feels like an intervention by the game rules to prevent a player from feeling bad about wasting an expertise die. In character, how could the fighter possible explain the spent and regained moment?

But I realize my first interpretation is wrong. The six-second round represents a lot of time in a battle. The combatants do not actually take turns winding up and swinging like batters in a baseball game. Instead the fighter dodges and weaves, parries and feints, tests his opponents and searches for vulnerabilities. He does not waste time doing an extra wind up before he hits, or at least not before he knows he will hit. Perhaps the blow lands and the fighter spends an instant to wrench his blade or to slam an elbow into his enemy’s gut. Perhaps the fighter spots an opening and takes a moment to wind back for a powerful blow because he already knows his blow will land.

A thread on Wizards’ D&D Next forums considers the gamey aspects of combat superiority in overwhelming detail. Much of the discussion dwells on teasing apart the protect maneuver. Can a fighter decide to jump in and block an attack after a roll determines a hit? I’m sympathetic to the concern, but I’m comfortable with Protect for a couple of reasons:

The dice rolling and other business between beginning an attack and writing down the damage ranks as the one of the biggest abstractions in D&D. The timing of that business hardly matches action in the game world. Your successful to-hit roll simply poses a threat that can still be countered.

  • The fighter’s ability to spot a likely hit and block it seems as natural as, say, a basketball defender’s ability to block a likely basket.
  • I feel like I can use the Protect maneuver without breaking character. “I see the orc wind up for a killing blow on the wizard. I slam my shield into the way and shout, `Not today, you fiend!’”

The expertise die works as a mechanic sufficiently grounded in the game world. The designers deserve kudos for it.

The rogue’s Knack mechanic, on the other hand, exists as pure metagaming. Why does a first-level rogue gain the Knack advantage on a maximum of two checks per day? Nothing in the game world leads to that limit. It exists purely as an artifice of the game, a way to prevent the rogue from gaining too much screen time in the story of the day’s adventure. The Knack mechanic’s appearance is particularly discouraging because it seems like such a gratuitous soiling of a core class. I’m bracing for the likelihood of a warlord class loaded with dissociated mechanics, but this is the rogue. Surely the designers can invent a non-dissociated mechanic that reinforces skill mastery and expresses the rogue’s talent for skills.