Tag Archives: Rodney Thompson

How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal

How much should the outcomes of characters’ actions be decided by the dungeon master instead of the rules?

Before roleplaying games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possibility. The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates—especially in the many situations the rules didn’t cover. “Prior to 3rd edition,” designer Monte Cook wrote, “‘the DM decides’ wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.”

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriend’s characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

So the designers entered what D&D’s Creative Director Mike Mearls calls “the business of trying to ‘fix’ obnoxious people.”

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.”

So D&D’s fourth-edition designers devised rules that shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, fourth edition shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, spells lacked effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic: the Gathering cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For action outside of combat, fourth edition presents the skill challenge, where the DM only must decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

In Mearls’ opinion, this basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. “It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.”

Fifth edition’s design returns dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game. During the design, Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things.

Monte Cook touted the advantages of the approach. “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?”

DM empowerment reduces the volume of rules a game needs. Original D&D’s rules fit into a few pages because the game relied on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules failed to cover. Rodney Thompson explained that fifth edition also “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten,” Monte wrote. “Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can’t do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don’t need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player’s crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.”

None of this means that D&D’s rules lack a purpose. D&D remains a game about making choices and seeing the consequences (often while in dungeons with dragons). The rules serve as the physics of the game world. As much as convenient, rules should enable players to see the likely consequences of an action, make wise or reckless choices, and then let the dice settle the outcome. Rules help span the gulf between a character’s real experience in the game world and what players learn from a DM’s description. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.) Elegant games cover most of the actions players may take with compact rules that deliver verisimilitude. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

In a roleplaying game, characters face perils, and sometimes harsh consequences. Without such possibilities, the game lacks tension and everyone grows bored. The rules help the DM avoid becoming the players’ adversary—the person to blame when something goes wrong. Monte wrote, “If the rule is printed in a book, it’s easier to assume that it’s balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it.” When I run a game and the players succeed, I want them to credit themselves; when something goes bad, I want them to blame the die rolls set by the rules.

The best roleplaying games strike a balance between rules and empowered game masters. D&D owes some of its recent success to elegant rules, some to DM empowerment, and some to modern dungeon masters better suited to their empowered role.

Early in the life of D&D, DMs struggled more with their role keeping the group interested, excited, and happy. Everyone came to D&D from a life seeing and playing only competitive games, so DMs tended to fall into a familiar style of playing to win. And let’s face it, the example set by co-creator Gary Gygax reinforced some of the DM-to-win archetype. After all, when his group made smart plays by listening at doors and searching rubbish for treasure, Gary struck back by creating ear seekers and rot grubs.

Until recently, if you didn’t go to conventions, you could be a dungeon master for decades and almost certainly only see a couple of other DMs in action. Today, every potential DM can stream examples of other DMs acting as fans of the characters. Plus, DMs grow up exposed to electronic roleplaying games. Today’s DMs rarely need to be tied by rules to enable a fun game.

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. When D&D’s designers worked to eliminate the DM’s judgement from the game, they threw out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

Related: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Five new or different rules in the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons game

With the launch of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers hosted panels at Gen Con 2014 introducing the game to new and returning players. You can listen to designers Rodney Thompson and Greg Bilsland at one of these sessions recorded by the Tome Show Podcast.

During the discussions, the designers listed 5 new or different things in the new edition. This post recaps that list.

First though, the designers explained the game’s core: Whenever a character’s action has an uncertain outcome, you roll a twenty-sided die (d20), add a bonus, and try to reach a target number. If your roll plus your bonus equals or exceeds the number, you succeed. In the game, players make three types of d20 rolls following this mechanic.

  • When your character tries to strike an enemy in combat, an attack roll determines whether the attack hits. To succeed, an attack roll must equal or exceed a foe’s armor class.
  • When your character attempts a task with a chance of failure, an ability check determines success. To succeed, an ability check must equal or exceed a difficulty class.
  • When your character resists a spell, trap, poison, disease, or similar danger, a saving throw determines whether the character succumbs. To succeed, a saving throw must equal or exceed a difficulty class.

As players make these d20 rolls on behalf of their characters, the dungeon master makes these rolls for the monsters.

These mechanics existed in earlier editions, but the fifth edition makes five, key additions:

1. Advantage and Disadvantage

When something in the game world improves your chance of hitting, succeeding at a task, or avoiding a threat, you gain advantage on your d20 roll. When you have advantage, you roll two twenty-sided dice and use the highest of the two die rolls. For example, when your foe cannot see you and properly defend, you might gain advantage on an attack . Similarly, when circumstances hurt your chance of success, you suffer disadvantage. When you have disadvantage, you roll two d20 and use the lowest of the two rolls.

Advantage and disadvantage don’t multiply. Even if you gain advantage from more than one source, you never roll more than two d20 dice. You cannot stack advantages. Likewise, If you suffer disadvantage from two sources, you still just roll two d20 and take the lowest. If you both gain advantage and suffer disadvantage on the same roll, they cancel and you roll one d20. Any number of sources of advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out, leading to rolling one d20. This spares players from having to count advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage and disadvantage replace most of the pluses and minuses that appeared in earlier editions, but the mechanic does not apply to cover. A target with half cover gains a +2 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. A target with three-quarters cover gains a +5 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. For more on this design choice, see “How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design.”

Reason for change. Third-edition D&D featured long lists of pluses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. Fifth edition drops all the fussy calculation for advantage and disadvantage. While less of a simulation than a tally of pluses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

“I just invented a new D&D term: Sadvantage. That’s when you have advantage and still can’t hit.” – Greg Bilsland.

2. Spellcasting and spell slots

Except for Rangers and Paladins, every spellcaster knows a number of cantrips. Cantrips can be cast at will, as often as desired. More powerful spells cost spell slots to cast.

Every spellcaster has a number of spell slots they spend to cast spells. As Rodney Thompson explains, slots are the fuel characters burn to cast spells. Spell slots have a level and you can spend them to cast a spell of equal level or lower. For example, you can spend a second-level slot to cast either a first or second level spell.

Many spells become more powerful when cast with a higher-level spell slot. For example, the first-level Magic Missile spell shoots another missile when cast with a second-level slot. Unlike in third edition, spells never grow more powerful simply because a higher-level caster throws them. Only spending a higher-level slot boosts their power.

Characters regain spell slots after a long rest.

Preparing spells. Characters in most classes must prepare spells before they can cast them. When you cast a spell, you spend a spell slot, but the spell remains prepared. Unlike in earlier editions, you can cast a prepared spell more than once, as long as you still have slots to spend. After a long rest, you can change the spells you have prepared.

Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks don’t prepare spells. They know spells that they can cast whenever they have slots to spend. You choose which spells your character knows as you gain levels.

Reason for change. This system grants casters an extra measure of flexibility. It spares players the risk of preparing spells that prove useless, resulting in a bad day of adventure.

3. Concentration

Many spells require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. These spells list durations such as “Concentration, up to 1 minute,” meaning that if the caster concentrates, the spell lasts a minute.

Losing concentration. A spellcaster can concentrate on just one spell at a time. You can cast other spells that do not require concentration without breaking concentration. You can end concentration on a spell at any time, without an action. This ends the spell’s effects, but lets you cast a new spell that demands concentration.

When casters maintaining concentration take damage, they must make a Constitution saving throw to keep their spell going. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.

Combining magical effects. When different spells’ overlap, the effects add together. The effects of the same spell cast multiple times don’t combine. Only apply the one spell with the most potent effect, such as the highest bonus. If that spell ends, then less potent spells may show their effects.

Reason for change. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisible, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge. Then when the evil mage casts dispel magic, buffs disappear and all the numbers need recalculation. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

Concentration forces the min-maxers to search harder for broken combinations of spell effects. Multiple spell casters can still combine effects, but the designers see this as teamwork, not as a single character dominating the game.

Concentration also opens tactical options. Casters become targets for foes aiming to break concentration and stop spells. For more, see “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Kill the wizard.”

Not all spells with durations require concentration. A few spells such as Mage Armor, Mirror Image, and Fire Shield offer protection without concentration.

4. Proficiency

Characters have proficiency in the things they do well. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools.

Proficiency grants a bonus to the d20 rolls you make for attacks, saving throws, and checks. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19. Proficiency appears throughout the system.

  • When characters are proficient with a weapon, they add their proficiency bonus to the attack roll. When characters lack proficiency, they do not gain this bonus.
  • When characters cast a spell that requires an attack roll, they add their proficiency bonus to the roll. Spellcasters always gain proficiency with spells they can cast.
  • When characters make an ability check covered by one of their skills, they add their proficiency bonus to the check.
  • When characters are proficient with tools used to make an ability check, they add their proficiency bonus to the check. You never add a proficiency bonus for both a skill and a tool to the same check.
  • When characters are proficient with a type of saving throw, they add their proficiency bonus to those saves.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference may confuse new players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner.

Reason for change. Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The fifth-edition proficiency bonus simplifies by sweeping all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus. For more, see “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game” and “Proficiency and bounded accuracy in D&D Next.”

5. Bonus actions

Characters take just one action on their turn. Some class features, spells, and other abilities let you take an additional action called a bonus action. Three key limitations apply to bonus actions.

  • To gain a bonus action, something like a special ability or spell must state that you get a bonus action to do something. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. For example, when you take an attack action to attack with a light melee weapon in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a second light melee weapon in your other hand.
  • You can only take one bonus action. For example, at second level, the Rogue’s Cunning Action class feature grants a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide. If your rogue also wields two weapons, then you must choose between using your one bonus for your Cunning Action or for a second weapon strike.
  • You can only take bonus actions on your turn. For example, your rogue cannot interrupt another turn to take the bonus action granted by Cunning Action.

Reason for change. Fourth-edition characters could gain numerous extra actions, which helped the game earn a reputation for long turns. Bonus actions speed play by limiting the number of extra things someone can do during a turn.

My first impression of inspiration proved wrong

In an earlier post, I leveled criticism toward the inspiration mechanic based on Mike Mearls’s preview in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.” I listed two gripes:

  • Awarding inspiration seemed to put the dungeon master in an uncomfortable role. Mearls wrote about awarding inspiration for “describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character’s dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play.” All this made inspiration seem like an award for showmanship. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who rates players’ panache.
  • Inspiration seemed like a distracting, metagame intrusion. The preview suggested  inspiration would be awarded frequently, and said it faded quickly (no longer true). This painted inspiration as a common distraction. You could spend inspiration, bank for later, or pass on to another player (still true). This painted inspiration as a gamey resource that represented nothing in the game world. Such dissociated mechanics force attention away from the characters’ world and prevent players from making choices while immersed in character.

When I read the actual rules, I realized that the inspiration mechanic revives action points, a mechanic I have enjoyed. My harsh judgements were wrong. The preview mislead me, and the sun got in my eyes.

Inspiration is exactly like action points, except (1) with a different name, (2) with a different purpose, and (3) without points. Perhaps I should explain.

The action point entered the D&D game in the Eberron Campaign Setting as a bit of genre emulation. According to the campaign guide, “The setting combines traditional medieval D&D fantasy with swashbuckling action and dark adventure.

“To help capture the cinematic nature of the swordplay and spellcasting, we’re added action points to the rules mix. This spendable, limited resource allows players to alter the outcome of dramatic situations and have their characters accomplish the seemingly impossible.” (p.9)

Characters in Eberron started with a bank of 5 action point that they could spend to kick d20 rolls with an extra d6. In theory, this meager bonus enables characters to accomplish the impossible. In practice, it adds a resource that forces players out of character.

The fourth-edition designers chose to keep action points, but they no longer needed to emulate Indiana Jones in D&D. In 4E, action points became an incentive aimed at discouraging the 15-minute adventuring day. Presumably, players would look ahead to a fresh action points and decide to press on to their next encounter, rather than resting to regain powers, hit points, and, well, action points. To sweeten the incentive, and to keep “action” in the name, action points now granted an extra action.

While action points failed to quash the 15-minute day, they proved fun for players. The additional action provides a more precious benefit than a mere d6 boost. They remain a gamey resource that you cannot manage while immersed in character. But with a mechanic as innocuous as action points, the drawback seems light enough. You need not step out of character for long.

Many aspects of the fourth edition design brought unintended consequences. For example, the fourth-edition design suffered from the unintended consequence of costing most of its designers and planners their jobs at Wizards of the Coast. (Too soon?)

Fourth-edition action points often turned climactic encounters into one turn of nova attacks followed by slow grinds against crippled enemies. This came because action points allowed characters to double their opening salvos of daily and encounter powers, multiplying the potency of their first turns. By the time a guy like Juiblex, demon lord of slimes and oozes, gets a chance to act, he’s prone, immobilized, dazed, suffering -4 to all attacks, and has his pants around his ankles. (In fourth edition, even oozes are subject to the pants-round-ankles condition.) See “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master?

So fifth edition scrapped action points.

Meanwhile, the 5E designers worked to improve the role-playing pillar of D&D. They started by inviting players to flesh out characters with a bond and a flaw. “Your bonds are your character’s ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way,” Mearls previewed. “Your flaws are your character’s weaknesses.”

Neither bonds nor flaws count as new to role playing. In games like Champions (1981) and GURPS (1986), you can give your characters flaws and bonds too. Adopting such disadvantages buys points that you can use to strengthen your character in other ways.

The 5E designers may have considered character-creation rewards for bonds and flaws, but once you reap any character-creation benefits, nothing in play encourages you to hold to your liabilities. So instead of adding incentives to character creation, they added an incentive to bring bonds and flaws into play.

In a Ready, Set, Play seminar, Designer Rodney Thompson explained, “Whenever you allow your flaw or your bond to impact your character negatively, maybe by making a decision that isn’t so great for the party but totally is in keeping with your characters flaw, the dungeon master can award you inspiration. And basically this is a reward that the DM can give you to say, hey, you have roleplayed out your character’s flaw even though it may not have been the best and most optimal decision. Here’s your reward in the form of inspiration.”

Although Mike Mearls may award inspiration for panache, I feel more comfortable for Rodney Thompson’s more objective standard. If following your character’s weaknesses drives you into a worse situation, then you gain inspiration. I can spot those situations and feel good about rewarding them.

Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

Inspiration shares a lot with action points. Like the Eberron points, players trade inspiration to boost a die roll. Like the 4E points, inspiration bribes players to do things that improve play. Since inspiration neither supports “swashbuckling action” nor grants additional actions, the “action” had to go.

The term “points” goes too. Unlike action points, inspiration doesn’t come in points. Inspiration works more like a status; your character can have the inspired status or not. Once you spend your inspiration, you have to earn it again. The terminology helps show that your character cannot have more than one inspiration to spend.

As a status, inspiration even gains a gloss of game-world association. Mearls wrote, “By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character’s goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.” By acting true to themselves, characters become inspired without a word from the bard. Mearls even explained how a transfer of inspiration could work in the game world. “In this case, your character’s determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members.”

Only one problem remains. When a character’s flaws drive a player to make suboptimal decisions, the player gains inspiration. But D&D works as a game of teamwork. Often the rest of the party suffers for one character’s bad choice. Sometimes, only the rest of the party suffers. See “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”

I’ve seen no end to problems created by players who make choices that cause grief for the other players. “Because that’s what my character would do,” they explain. I hate hearing “that’s what my character would do” as a form of apology. No one explains what their character would do when they don’t screw the party. As a game master, I feel no urge to reward grief with an incentive.

The D&D designers thought of this aspect too. Rodney Thompson explains, “Maybe you did something that the other players at the table weren’t super thrilled about, but you can give them that inspiration as a way of saying sorry.”

The next time I reward inspiration for a choice that caused trouble for the party, I will ask the player to pass the inspiration to another player for a key roll.

As a player, how can you gain the most from inspiration? I suggest saving inspiration for critical saving throws against things like the dragon’s breath or the lich’s disintegrate spell. Also, remember that a single advantage from inspiration can cancel any number of disadvantages, so use inspiration when the odds are stacked against you.

9 more fifth-edition D&D rules questions answered by the designers

Just like at last year’s Gen Con, two Dungeons & Dragons designers came to the dungeon masters’ meeting and spent a few minutes answering rules questions from the gathered DMs. Later in the convention, I intercepted designer Rodney Thompson and got answers more questions.

Dungeons & Dragons at Gen Con 2014This list collects the designers’ answers.

  • The fighter’s dueling style, which grants a +2 to damage, works with a shield in the off hand.
  • A divine focus can be emblazoned on a cleric’s shield, enabling the cleric to wield a weapon in the other hand and still cast spells. A wizard can hold an arcane focus in one hand and a weapon in another and still cast spells. A druid must hold mistletoe as an arcane focus, so druids must either stash their shield or their weapon to cast.
  • Moving through the space of an ally, even a prone ally, counts as difficult terrain.

    As a simulation, making an ally’s space count as difficult terrain makes sense, but this rule did not exist in earlier editions. The fifth-edition designers aimed to make the game streamlined, so why introduce this new complication? The designers made allies count as difficult terrain to deal with the side effects of allowing characters to move, attack, and then use their remaining movement. The rule limits the implausible situation where characters move to the front of a line of allies to make an attack, and then move to the back of the line, all in the same turn.

    We all understand that turns serve as an abstraction to make the game playable, and in the game world, most of the action in a round all occurs simultaneously. Allowing each member of the party to squeeze up, make an attack, then retreat to the back, leaving the tank in front to face the enemy’s attack, exposes a certain absurdity in the abstraction.

    Apparently, an enemy’s single opportunity attack fails to do enough to discourage the batter-up attack queue.

  • You cannot hide from a creature that can see you. Aside from that limitation, the DM must rule on when a creature can hide and sneak based on what makes sense in the game world. See “D&D next re-empowers DMs; players stay empowered.” The designers tried to write broad rules for stealth, but found that the number of possibilities made the rules too cumbersome for the elegant game they aimed to create.
  • Initiative rolls count as a Dexterity check, so anything that boosts Dexterity checks improves initiative.
  • Multi-classed characters only gain ability score increases when they reach the benefit levels in one of their classes. Although classes gain an ability score increase at fourth level, a character multi-classed to level 2 in two classes does not gain an ability score increase.
  • The missiles in a Magic Missile strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. Your wizard must decide which missiles will hit which targets before you start tallying damage.
  • If an opportunity attack or other reaction drops you prone as you move, you can still use your remaining movement to crawl or stand. The usual movement costs apply.
  • Spells that include an attack roll can score a critical hit.

    At one of my Gen Con tables, a cultist scored a critical hit with an Inflict Wounds spell, dealing 6d10 damage on an unlucky first-level character. The target dropped dead. Although my reading of the rules led me to think that spells can score criticals, I failed to find any clear confirmation. After the session, I asked another judge if spells with attack rolls can crit, and he told me that they could not. I felt awful that my misreading of the rules might have led to a character’s death, so I sought out a designer and managed to corner Rodney Thompson. His answer: spells with attack rolls can crit. What a relief. As I wrote in “Rolling in a box,” I want any character deaths to come from foolish characters and crit-rolling dice, not from my failure to apply the rules.

    The moral: Do not get close to spellcasting cultists. Even without a critical hit, the 3d10 damage from Inflict Wounds puts the spell in line with the damage potential of other first-level spells, although the concentration of damage on a single target makes it particularly deadly.

D&D next re-empowers DMs; players stay empowered

How much should the outcomes of the characters’ actions be decided by the game master instead of the rules?

Before role-playing games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possible action.

The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates.

CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver

Taming bad dungeon masters

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to demand to be addressed as “Mr. DM sir,” to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriends’ characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

Perhaps inspired by all the tales of bad DMs, the fourth edition designers shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, 4E shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, 4E’s spells lack effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. (You can.) For action outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

Restoring DM empowerment

Now the D&D next designers speak of returning dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game, or re-empowering the dungeon master. See Rodney Thompson’s first answer in this Rule-of-Three post and Monte Cook’s discussion in an early Legends and Lore, “The Temperature of the Rules”.

The phrase “DM empowerment” may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle your DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules—with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things. If Mike Mearls came from a marketing background, we would be talking about restoring player freedom instead of DM empowerment.

You might say, “Even though 4E minimizes the DM’s power, my character still has the freedom to try anything.” Really? When did you last try to use a power outside of combat? Do the 4E rules even explicitly allow powers outside of combat? As much as possible, 4E limits your character’s actions to the familiar bounds of the rules.

Even though 4E allows you to attempt things outside the rules, players tend to limit themselves to the menu on their character sheets, just as they rarely stray from their favorite restaurant’s menu.

Players who limit themselves to their defined powers make my job as a 4E dungeon master easier, because I worry about allowing players to improvise actions that duplicate powers. The game includes powers that do things like trip or blind, and this suggests that these stunts require special training. If I allow anyone to throw sand into a foe’s eyes, effectively duplicating the rogue power Sand in the eyes, am I diminishing the value of a level-7 power? If I allow the improvised power, I set a precedent. What happens when a trick proves too repeatable? I don’t want characters to enter every combat flinging handfuls of sand. No real-world army prevailed with such tactics. I never want to say no, but I’m wary of yes.

In practice, as a DM, I allow improvised actions when the unique situation makes the action difficult to repeat. Repeatable actions demand extra scrutiny, because they must always be a little less potent than a comparable power.

Resolution transparency

The opposite of DM empowerment is not player empowerment or player entitlement, it’s resolution transparency, where the outcome of any action is resolved by rule so players can anticipate the likely outcomes in advance. Resolution transparency lets you subject your enemies to both ongoing cold and fire damage without ever worrying whether the DM will decide that the cold douses the fire.

Player empowerment, also known as player agency, refers to the players’ ability to change the game world. When players lack player agency, either they lack meaningful options because they are being railroaded, or because the DM’s favorite non-player characters upstage and supersede the player characters.

Player entitlement means players enjoy unrestricted access to all game options for their characters. They can, for example, shop for any magic items their characters can afford.

Rules volume

DM empowerment and resolution transparency effect the volume of rules a game needs. Both original D&D and D&D next fit their core game rules into a few pages by relying on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules fail to cover. Rodney Thompson writes that D&D next “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

In theory, a game could give players freedom while maximizing resolution transparency by including mountains of rules that cover every possibility. For example, 4E might include a damage-type table that reveals that cold cancels fire. The lightning damage type might bear extra rules for dealing with damage transmitted through water and physical contact. The 80s saw several games with such extensive rules, but nobody plays Aftermath much anymore.

How fourth edition avoids too many rules

Fourth edition features greater resolution transparency than any other role-playing game, while avoiding extra complexity. The design works this magic by focusing the game on combat encounters and skill-challenge encounters. These two activities provide a way to ignore all the messy, game-world details that otherwise require mountains of rules or a game master’s judgement to resolve.

For combat, 4E’s designers opted for broad, simple rules that gloss over the physics of the game world for the sake of playability. For example, a power’s flavor text never matters, just its keywords. And while the keywords matter, their meanings do not. “Lightning,” “cold,” and “fire” damage could as easily be “kootie,” “loogie,” and “mojo” damage.

Skill challenges provide an activity where the game-world provides flavor, but where only the list of applicable skills actually matters in the game. As originally conceived, skill challenges grant players resolution transparency, while making the game-world unimportant. Players wind up studying their character sheets and lose any immersion in the game-world. See my series starting with “Evolution of the skill challenge,” for an analysis of the skill challenge, and how the activity changed to allow greater DM empowerment.

By glossing over the game-world’s messy details, these design strategies diminish the importance of the game world and focus everyone’s attention on the rules and stats.

Advantages of DM empowerment and resolution transparency

Both DM empowerment and resolution transparency have advantages.

Benefits of DM empowerment

  • Grants players more freedom to interact with the game world.
  • Enables lighter game rules by trusting the DM to fill the gaps.
  • Makes the game world more important, enhancing player immersion. Monte Cook writes, “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can.”

Benefits of resolution transparency

  • Allows players to anticipate the likely outcomes of an action in advance.
  • Players understand their options because the rules list most of the actions their characters can take. Players rarely need to ask the DM what they can do; they rarely need to ask, “Mother may I?”
  • Limits the importance of the DM’s skill and personality.

For my taste, I tend to prefer resolution transparency during combat, although 4E goes farther than I like. Outside of combat, I want players immersed in the game world, not in the game’s rules, so I favor DM empowerment.

Tabletop games need empowered DMs to succeed

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. A game like 4E that eliminates the DM’s judgement from the game throws out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?