Tag Archives: Pathfinder

A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

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

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

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

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

Wisdom makes you alert

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

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

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

The advantages of Search and Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City

I’m back from Gen Con and four days of terrific gaming.

For this year, Wizards of the Coast elected to focus its attention on exposing as many as possible to Dungeons & Dragons Next, and so they dropped all Living Forgotten Realms events from the convention. Pushing D&D Next seemed to work. Players new to D&D Next filled my tables and I met a lot of Pathfinder devotees willing to sample the new D&D system.

The lack of LFR disappointed some players and judges, but I appreciated the chance to run D&D Next for the first time. The absence of LFR at this convention doesn’t signal the end of fourth edition or of Living Forgotten Realms. New LFR adventures are coming. The Winter Fantasy convention will feature a slate of LFR events, including a new, paragon-level battle interactive.

2013 D&D Championship - battling Zargon in the lost city

2013 D&D Championship – battling Zargon in the lost city

Although I dungeon mastered the Crisis in Candlekeep delve twice, my DM highlights came from running the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure three times. Murder in Baldur’s Gate forced me to develop an aspect of my DM skills that I’ve rarely exercised in the past. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

As usual, playing the 2013 Dungeons & Dragons Championship delivered as much fun as I ever have playing D&D. The Championship features a lethal adventure intended to test even the best teams of players. The unforgiving challenge brings a sense of peril that you never see in typical adventures, because in typical adventures the odds always favor the players. The event’s time pressure amps up the urgency and demands fast play.

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

This year the author of the championship adventure, M. Sean Molley, created a tribute to the 1982 Lost City adventure by Tom Moldvay. The first round dared teams to recover three staffs from locations in the lost city. Earlier fourth edition championships played solely as tactical miniature battles, but this year’s adventure added puzzles to the mix—a welcome nod to the old tournament classics. The final round required characters to use the staffs in a fight to destroy past and present versions of Zargon, the evil demigod of the lost city. I marvel at how skillfully a battle with so many variables was balanced on the narrow line between difficult and impossible.

As a dungeon master, I admire the DMs in the championship, who must play fast, fair, and show total command of the rules. They do enjoy some perks: Where else can a DM coupe de grace a fallen character without straining D&D’s social contract? Even among this elite crew, our DMs Brian and Sean stood out as exceptional. Plus, our DM for the finals happened to be the adventure’s author.

I played on the team that claimed second place—for the third year in a row. We’re like the 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills of the D&D Championship. Still, I’m thrilled to do well.

Will next year’s Championship be the first to feature the next iteration of the D&D rules?

Scry and fry

(Part 2 of a series, which begins with Spells that can ruin adventures.)

Third edition Dungeons & Dragons added the Scrying spell, which unlike Clairvoyance and Clairaudience could target a creature rather than just a familiar location. Scrying worked in conjunction with Teleport to make villains vulnerable to the scry-buff-teleport system of ambush, also known as scry and fry.

The target of the Scrying spell gets a save, but the wizard can always wait for another attempt, or just scry Igor or minion #3. The game offers a couple of eighth-level, defensive spells in Screen and Mind Blank. Will the Dark Lord mind blank Igor too? None of these spells can be made permanent, so apparently, every high-level villain needs archmages on staff just to thwart do-gooder knuckleheads who can cast a sixth-level spell. In practice, the best defense might be a DM with the chutzpah to fudge an improbable number of saves. The Pathfinder system makes the spell easy to counter with lead shielding. Why didn’t Gary Gygax think of that? He did. In the first edition, metal sheeting blocked Clairvoyance and Clairaudience.

The teleport ambush worked so well, and the game offered so few countermeasures that Monte Cook stepped up in 2001 and included spells like Teleport Block, Teleport Tracer, and Teleport Redirect in his Book of Eldritch Might. In 2005, the Spell Compendium finally added practical countermeasures to the base game with Anticipate Teleportation and Greater Anticipate Teleportation. These spells delay the arrival of teleporting creatures into an area long enough to foil an ambush.

Anticipate Teleportation serves as an excellent example of a countermeasure that allows problematic spells to continue working, while adding interesting complications that makes using them risky. If Anticipate Teleportation can be made permanent, then it adds a perfect solution to the game. Teleport Redirect, on the other hand, counters Teleport with an easily lethal trap. As a DM, I want to avoid killing an entire party due to an unwise teleport.

Players don’t like having the DM nullify the cool things they can do, even if it’s cloaked in the guise of the villain’s wards and traps. If your villain happens to use some of the gotcha effects, you’re really going to see some angry glares across the table. “So you’re saying that after you heard us talking about teleporting, the bad guy just ‘happened’ to have Teleport Redirect in place.”

Players hate when you use your DM’s knowledge of their plans to invalidate their cleverness or cool toys. (And unless you can point to the gotcha, spelled out in advance, in ink, players will always suspect this.)

The ideal defenses to game-ruining spells make the spells riskier to use without invalidating them, like Anticipate Teleport. The counter effects cannot be so devastating that players feel punished for daring to use their hard-earned magic against the DM’s pet villains. And some countermeasures, like metal sheeting, need to be within reach of canny villains who cannot afford to keep archmages on retainer.

Next: Designing for spells that spoil adventures