Tag Archives: play style

Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

In my last post I wrote about how Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session.

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons.

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

The Ruins of UndermountainIn 1991, TSR finally published The Ruins of Undermountain, its first megadungeon in print. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a box kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Kicking in endless doors to fight and loot turned from fresh and thrilling to a tiresome slog. Today, avid D&D players can claim that they don’t like dungeons or can say that their best games lack any combat. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. See “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.” With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A world of fantasy offers plenty of possible justifications for the strange things in the underworld. More on that in my next post.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can being the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

Next: The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons reached stores in 2000. Its popularity fueled a number of “living” campaigns similar to today’s Adventurers League and Pathfinder Society. One such campaign, Living Arcanis hosted an event called The Battle of Semar at the Winter Fantasy convention. This event billed itself as a Battle Interactive. Before then, living campaigns held plain interactives. Paizo Publisher Erik Mona recalls, “Prior to Living Arcanis, most (if not all) interactives involved players wandering around a room with several ‘activity booths,’ occasional mini-adventures, and other non-adventure opportunities. The idea (though not wholly the practice) was that once you stepped into an interactive, you ‘were’ your character, and in-character chatter was highly encouraged.” The Battle of Semar gathered many tables of players to fight together toward the common goal of freeing the fortress city of Semar. The session might not have been the first such epic event, but it popularized the form. Suddenly every living campaign sponsored battle interactives. The format lives on in the D&D Epics and the Pathfinder Society Specials.

These multi-table, epic events have brought some of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons game sessions. At big conventions, they gather hundreds of players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective.

Just 3 years ago, I stumbled into serving as a dungeon master in my first such event: ADCP4-2 Lost City of Suldolphor by Dan Anderson. I had a blast. Since then, I’ve run tables at five epic events, and played in two more. Still, that first one stands as my favorite.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

This year, after running a table for DDEP2 Mulmaster Undone, the first of Gen Con’s two Epics, I tweeted, “Have the D&D Epics lost the plot? Recently they are fun but not special.” The event gave no sense of adventuring parties joining in a grand endeavor, and no interaction between tables.

The convention venue created many of the problems: Organizers could not use a public address system. They could not project results on a large screen. The schedule created severe time constraints. By the end, when the organizer would have announced results, the convention center cut the lights and power. But even aside from these handicaps, this Epic lacked the ambition of my first Battle Interactive.

The experience made me think of my past events, the many elements that I loved, and some elements that fell flat. I wondered how to build the best multi-table epic ever.

For more than 10 years, volunteers and professionals in the gaming community have written and organized these events. Some draw on experience that dwarfs mine. So who am I to explain how to create the most epic event ever? Nobody. Nonetheless, I will tell you what made my favorite events so good, how future events might even be better, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth. If no one sounds off to tell me where I’m wrong, I’ll be disappointed.

Gather the room with a role-playing performance

The Lost City of Suldolphor did not begin with a dungeon master reading box text. Instead, Dan Anderson and M. Sean Molly stood at the front of the banquet hall, and performed as WeavePasha and Ala’Ammar, the adventurers’ patrons. This bit of theater did a far better job of setting the scene than any lone DM could have. Plus it brought the room together in a common mission. From the start, we were no longer separate tables isolated in our separate teams. We stood as a league of heroes standing together in a great fight.

No battle interactive or epic should ever begin with individual DM’s introducing their tables to the adventure. Setting the scene calls for a bit of theater. Don’t tell me our hobby lacks enough story tellers and role players to put on a show.

Establish a goal for everyone, and then show their progress

Epic events unite players at many game tables to reach a common goal. Each table’s success contributes to the final outcome. While players at the tables race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war.

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories captured, and MacGuffins claimed. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they must see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Without an ongoing show of progress, epic events play less like games and more like tests: Everyone works alone, stops, and then gets the results. The lack cripples the event.

Embrace the fight for glory

Especially at Gen Con’s Epic events, the marshals who match players with DMs face an extra challenge: Many of their DMs are new to running for strangers, so they want easier, low-level tables. Meanwhile, high-level tables fill most of the room. For epic events, players typically bring their highest-level characters. Everyone wants to show off their strongest character; everyone wants their best shot at glory.

With a big stage and a shared goal, epic events fuel gamers’ competitive fire. They want to bring attention to their table and to their characters. This makes players rush to complete as many challenges as possible, to contribute as much as possible to the community’s success, to bring glory to their table and their PCs. The urgency creates an electric atmosphere that no single-table session can match.

The best epic events embrace the hunger for glory. They offer more challenges than the players can handle and the hardest challenges the players dare to accept. Players inclined to fight for the spotlight should have a chance to take it. Just as knights once competed to take the vanguard in the battle, tables could compete to take the most dangerous—and glorious—tasks. For a taste of glory, some players will even sacrifice beloved characters to suicide missions.

Focus on combat encounters and clear challenges.

A year after my first battle interactive, I served as a DM in my second. For me, this session didn’t feel like as much of a smash has that first event.

This adventure featured an assortment of challenges contributed by various authors. Some of the challenges came as battles, others offered skill challenges or even role playing diversions. Something for everyone, except the battlefield reports on the projection screen kindled my players’ taste for glory. When the adventure led to role playing, they grew frustrated by the pace. The organizers wanted a certain number of parties to tackle each encounter, so I could not always steer the players to challenges that would suit them. I worry that I failed to leave all the players happy with the session.

Fifth-edition D&D accommodates all play styles, but not every event must fit all play styles. D&D epics work best with short, clear missions. The Living Forgotten Realms Battle-interactive adventures included this disclaimer: “This adventure is combat-intensive. Players who do not enjoy combat encounters are less likely to enjoy this adventure.” A good epic event might allow players to choose role-playing challenges, but it cannot require them. When the event results begin to appear on the screen, few players have patience for tangents. An epic event that forces every play style fails to play to the epic format’s strengths.

Offer players a choice of challenges

This year at Gen Con, I ran a table at the low-level track of DDEP3 Blood Above Blood Below. The scenario put PCs in a gladiatorial contest that evoked the spectacles of imperial Rome. Scattered across a massive, flooded arena stood a number of platforms patterned after the cities on the Moonsea. For example, the Mulmaster platform punished characters who used arcane magic. Characters boarded boats and raced to capture flags from the platforms.

This buffet of challenges proved brilliant. From a distance, the PCs could see enough of each platform’s encounter to create meaningful choices. Players selected targets that suited their interests and their characters’ strengths.

The abundance of islands led players to move as fast as they dared to tackle as many challenges as possible. Critically, no table could collect all the flags.

In the same event, another track included a single, big challenge. I loved the track’s adventure, but some tables finished early and their players started begging for chances to help at other tables.

Epic events should always have more challenges and more encounters than any single table can complete in the time allotted.

The choice doesn’t have to come from a buffet. Players could also choose from a menu, with scouting reports that suggest the style a difficulty of the challenges.

Let players find a difficulty level

An epic event at a major convention welcomes a range of players and characters. Some tables feature folks still learning the game. Others include tacticians and min-maxers seeking to dominate encounters, the harder the better. Events like the Lost City of Suldolphor accommodated disparate skill levels by giving players a chance to choose a level of difficulty ranging up to glory—there’s that word again. The tactical gamers could flaunt their skills by selecting the most difficult level. Plus, they could hardly complain if some of their heroes fell in battle.

A clever event could even allow players to select a difficulty with the in the game setting. In the early days of D&D, players chose a difficulty level by choosing how deep into the dungeon they dared to explore. Epic events could parcel out missions of various difficulty and let tables choose which ones they wished to tackle.

Harder challenges might contribute more toward victory, although the contributions must be scaled by tier so even beginning PCs can weigh in the outcome.

Set party objectives that contribute to the overall goal

Some multi-table events have a shtick where a boss monster visits each table like the bride and groom at a wedding reception. Each table gets an exchange of attacks, schedule permitting.

Confrontation at Candlekeep put PCs in towers and flew a colossal dragon to each. I saw a PC jump on the dragon and ride table to table. The player was giddy. In an unforgettable moment of glory, he seized the spotlight at every table. The event led the designer to add the tactic to the encounter description.

However, these multi-table tours suffer drawbacks. When the boss leaves, no one at the table wants to go back to fighting mooks. That battle feels now meaningless, and probably is. Then when the boss finally falls, most players just hear cheers from another table. Most do not share the victory, or even feel they contributed much. The climactic win feels like a letdown. At a big con in a noisy room, I have sat at tables that never even heard their battle’s conclusion.

In the strongest multi-table finales, each table works to accomplish a separate objective that contributes to the overall goal. Perhaps each table must destroy some fragment of an artifact, or close a planar rift while monsters spill out, or slay a creature that carries a fragment of the master’s soul. Fantasy opens limitless options and plenty of monsters for everyone.

Foster interactivity

Without interaction between tables, epic events feel much like any other D&D game, so designers keep looking for ways to encourage interaction. I’ve seen promising techniques, but none have cracked the problem.

Many events let players call for help from other tables. But in play, players virtually never seek help. Folks play D&D to act as powerful heroes. No one wants to beg help from strangers. They would rather die fighting.

Another approach lets events at one table spill to other tables, as when a hero at one table jumps on a dragon and rides it to the next. Most commonly, the head DM announces an event when, say, a table completes an objective, and then DMs at the tables act on it.

A multi-table battle needs these sorts of events to feel interactive, but they create challenges with communication, interruptions, and for me at least, information retrieval.

I’ve seem two types of communication: table flags and announcements. Table flags let players at one table call for help. In other words, they go unused. Announcements broadcast events and conditions to the room. They work fine, especially in quieter venues, but they don’t suit messages to just a few tables.

Event announcements create interruptions. In practice, I cannot stop a player mid-turn to resolve some new event, so I have to wait and find the right moment. Sometimes, when I like the pace and energy at the table, I am slow to add a new ingredient. In practice, interaction is worth a few interruptions.

When interruptions come, I must find the rules for the new event in the adventure. Modules tend to describe an adventures progression in the order of events, but interruptions come out of order. The description could be—and has been—anywhere in a hundred-plus pages. I hate stopping the action for even a minute while I go hunting.

I would enjoy seeing interaction created by passing items like keys, scrolls, clues, and PCs on dragons from one table to another. For instance one table’s success could unlock challenges that another could tackle. This sort of interaction could be driven by handouts that explain the new event to the players and provide a page number for the DM. This sort of messaging might come with an order of communication, so the DM at table 5 knows to pass the key to table 4, and that if the creature escapes, it goes to table 6.

Create decisions for the room.

Some Battle Interactives offered another trick for uniting the room. They created decisions to be shared by the players in the room. For instance Lost City of Suldolphor had players decide whether enslaved elementals should be freed or whether they should remain bound to improve the odds in an upcoming battle. ADCP5-1 Home’s Last Light asked players to decide whether to destroy a city so its invaders would gain nothing from capturing it. Both ethical questions gave players a chance to step into their characters head and contribute to the decision in a bit of role-playing.

Speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments, and skill challenges

(Part 3 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons included lots of rules that no one uses: weapon speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments. A little of that tradition lived on in the first year of fourth edition. No one played skill challenges exactly as written in the first fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. At the very least, you did not start skill challenges by rolling for initiative.

According to the book, the Dungeon Master announces a skill challenge, the players roll initiative, and then take turns deciding on a skill to use and inventing a reason why that skill might apply to the situation. No one may pass a turn.

In short, everyone interrupts the D&D game and starts playing a storytelling game.

At Gen Con 2012, Robin D. Laws, one of the authors of the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, held a panel discussion on story advice. The Tome Show podcast recorded this panel as episode 201. When giving advice on running skill challenges, Robin Laws gives a succinct description of the original skill challenge.

“What I found myself doing when I was running 4E was putting a lot more onus on the players to describe what they were doing and make it much more of a narrative world-building than just here’s these particular obstacles that you have to overcome.
“‘You go on an arduous journey. Each of you contributes in a significant way as you’re going through the desert, and some of you wind up in a disadvantageous position. So tell me what it is you do to contribute to the survival of the party.’ And then I go around the table round-robin style and everyone would have to think of something cool and defining that they might have done.”

This flips the normal play style of D&D. Normally players encounter obstacles, and then find ways to overcome them. Now the players participate in the world building, inventing complications that their skills can overcome. I’m not saying this is wrong for a game. The market is full of storytelling games where players cooperate to tell stories, a process that can include taking turns inventing complications. This sort of collaborate storytelling may even be the preferred style of play for some D&D groups, though I have to wonder why those groups would choose to play D&D over a game that better suits their interests. I argue that for a lot of D&D players, this style did not feel like D&D very much anymore, and that is why skill challenges evolved over the course of fourth edition.

Robin’s description of the players’ role in the skill challenge is particularly interesting. He says players search for “cool and defining” things they could do. That could be fun, but challenges never play out that way. Most players just search their sheets for their best skills and try to imagine ways to justify using them. I suppose under Robin’s coaching, or with a game that encourages that play style, players might seek out cool and defining things. Unlike D&D, story games can encourage that play style mechanically. For example, story games often have mechanics where you define you characters by simply listing their unique and interesting aspects. This might be as simple as coming up with as list of adjectives or keywords describing your character.

Neither D&D’s tradition nor the skill challenge mechanic encourages players to overcome the challenge by inventing cool and defining actions for their character. D&D’s mechanics encourage players to look for their highest skill bonus, and then concoct an excuse to use it. I am certain that both Robin Laws and I both agree that this strategy makes D&D less fun than it can be.

He prefers a game where players share more of the narration, world-building role. Many fun games support that that style of play, but D&D is not one of those games. (Robin mentions that his HeroQuest game inspires the way he runs skill challenges.)

When I play D&D, I want to immerse myself in the game world and think of ways to overcome obstacles. My actions might involve skill checks, by they often do not.

Less then three months after the 4E release, Mike Mearls began his Ruling Skill Challenges column. He writes, “In many ways, the R&D department at Wizards of the Coast has undergone the same growing pains and learning experiences with skill challenges, much as DMs all over the world have.” The column starts a  process of recasting the skill challenge, making it fit better with the usual D&D play style.

Next: The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge

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.