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It varies, but in several editions of DnD, the official way skills work is: if it matters if you succeed on a task (say, picking a lock) first time, the task has a difficulty assigned, and you roll a d20 and add your skill, and if your number is as big or bigger, you succeed.

If it seems just obvious your character can probably do this, the GM is encouraged to just let it succeed. If you care about mechanics, there's a very similar concept "take 10" which allows you to not roll and just assume you got 10 (provided you're in an everyday not hectic situation), ie. just assume you got an average level of competence most of the time.

Likewise, if you could do it *eventually* by exhaustively trying everything, the GM is encouraged to just assume you can do that, even if it takes a while. The mechanical equivalent is "take 20", ie. assume you take 20 rounds, but eventually get 20 on your check. That's what you'd guess, but it's what the rules actually say in several editions.

Since you can usually figure out what the "obvious" thing that happens is, there's not that much benefit to having those specific rules (they're only half there in 5e). They're far from always realistic. But they do the right thing some of the time, while giving a default to use if you're not sure if the mechanics matter or not.


Implicitly the way it works is you're *either* quite high variance, or perfectly consistent.

It's not quite like that, if you roleplayed a mundane day-to-day activity repeatedly N times, you would assume you'd SOMETIMES screw up, even if it was something you could usually do, even if not as often as when people are attacking you.

But some situations, I'm not really satisfied with it.

If you're trying to pick a lock, or checking to see if you spot a hidden door, etc, then:

* If you roll every time, the party effectively have the value of the character with the best skill rolling perfectly, because they'll get there eventually
* If you assume you use 10, then the result is always the same: the character who's best at it ALWAYS spots it first, and the GM knows in advance exactly which locks and doors they'll succeed at.

Both are too deterministic, which takes away some of the fun for me: I *want* it to be a bit random. This lock is a bit harder than it looked from the outside. You get a bit of lockpick jammed in it. The party wizard just happens to remember an obscure lecture on magically concealing doors and notices a clue the rogue missed.

I've sometimes thought of this as "you roll, but if it doesn't make sense you'd succeed better a second time, then you don't get to reroll". But that's confusing and hard to track. Has the rogue tried this door already? If they have, why can't they try again?

My idea

It turns out, I actually want the take 10 and take 20 rules to work as they are, but maybe the difficulty should be randomly determined on the spot. Eg. instead of saying "all these doors are difficulty 15", say, "are difficulty 10+d10". Or a smaller variation, or occasionally a larger one.

That way there's a random element. Which doesn't matter if they're in the heat of combat, but does mean, there'll be some where "I can't get this one, we have to smash it" or "would one of you useless louts like to try to help?".

I could even generate a slightly different difficulty for different characters or different parties, although I'd probably only do that if it seemed to matter (and might simulate that in a more streamlined way, eg. dropping the difficulty for each party member, but choosing randomly who succeeds, the expert or someone else). That way you'd occasionally get a meaningful variation. And most of the time they'd deal with the encounter right then, only if they came back to it and it mattered that it was consistent would you have to track what you generated the first time.
jack: (Default)
Mostly first-level combat. Again, a medly of stuff I've stumbled into, please do suggest things.

Delegate whatever you easily can. Get someone else to track initiative order so you don't have to! And look things up if possible, when you want to check an official rule.

Keeping my session notes in tabs in notepad++ on a smartphone works surprisingly well. I can keep a relevant section easily visible, but not very visible to anyone else, needs little table space. And I can google for official stats for monsters if I need ("it's a... panther. OK, just one sec. Ok, 7 damage.").

If I track damage *done* to each NPC/monster on scratch paper, that allows everyone to know what's going on if they happen to be able to see, and establish incontrovertibly that I'm not fudging things that have already happened. However, it doesn't let people know precisely how many hitpoints are *left* which players should not know precisely (approximately how many is often obvious from the description). And if I do want to fudge a little, I can, eg. if the combat is dragging I can pretend a monster had one less hp than I originally intended, or shuffle around combined hitpoints between a crowd of mooks to keep things slightly simpler. I don't think I did last session, but I like to have the option if it would be useful.

As important to an NPC/monster as stats is their tactics: are they a predator who only attacks if they sense an easy meal? a thug who's used to winning every fight and will come in swinging but not know how to handle a combat that isn't going their way? an experienced soldier or adventurer who knows tactics, when to use cover, which enemies to target first, how to work together to gang up, etc. Don't always default to "attack until dead" or "attack inefficiently so the PCs don't all die", decide what's appropriate, and then roll with that whether they win or lose.

Likewise, do they unload with their most powerful attack first, if they're expecting a real fight? Or do they husband resources, assuming they may have many combats today and only falling back on their most powerful abilities when events start to go sour?

I don't usually have a mechanical meaning for "under half hitpoints" ("Bloodied" in 4e and 5e dnd parlance). But it's a useful metric for "does the monster switch tactics now", whether that's activating a new ability (whether they already "had" it but weren't using it), or going into a killing rage, or turning to flee.

Likewise, judge if and when opponents are likely to flee. If they *can* flee most opponents won't fight to the death, but some will. I generally eyeball this, if the fight is clearly going their way or not combined with how committed they are. A well-timed skill check can swing it though. I don't have specific mechanics for a number of hitpoints though, I assume NPCs can judge the tactical shit-hit-fan-ness as well as PCs.
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I really love writing up roleplaying sessions as I've done the last few times.

What I notice is that even when the events are the same, the write-up is very different. The emotional beats of the campaign are, when will the party succeed, when will they find things out, etc. But it's very hard to make that resonate in a write-up. I'm not sure why, but it almost always doesn't work.

Whereas in my write-up, the resonance comes from playing up character/player tension and gm/player tension, humorously, often exaggerated, though based on the real events. I think partly, being in the GM's head, the tense bits of the story are different for me than the players. And that works better for someone else looking in.

Anyway, novels that take the basic worldbuilding of a roleplaying campaign can be awesome (cf. Wildcards, etc). But if you try to write up the *events* it usually doesn't work, too much of the best moments rely on player interaction that can't be shared in fiction, and doesn't provide the hooks to care about the characters fiction needs.
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GM: ...and thank you for recapping last session.
GM: 1xp and 1gp to everyone for remembering (a) they were tracking the mutineers (b) to try to get the Plot Artifacts of Ancient and Mysterious Power before them.
GM: Not really.
GM: OK, are we all set? Have we all stocked up on quarterstaffs?
GM: And 10" poles? Or not, seriously, how does anyone carry those things??
GM: And forked sticks?
GM: This is a very useful forest.
GM: Anything else?
Princess: I still have the mysterious figurines I latched onto last session, right?
Princess: They're going to be important, right?
GM: I can neither confirm nor deny.
Kitty: We could talk to the toad-seals! Maybe they'd help.
Players: Can kitty talk to other animals?
GM: Duh. That's obviously much more interesting.
Players: But...
Players: In the last session, we trampled their eggs, roasted a bunch of them, and took their meat for provisions.
Animal-loving princess: Sorry!
Players: They may not want to talk to us.
GM: Yes, that.
GM: It's always worth asking. But also, they're in a different place where you're not.
Kitty: We could talk to the goats!
Players: But they're also not here.
Players: And also, see, killed, roasted, provisions.
Players: :(
GM: I'm sorry. Keep trying! You can absolutely talk to animals and it's absolutely relevant.
GM: It's just the first um all the things you tried happened not to work specifically. But it's still good!
GM: When I *planned* this island, I didn't expect the animals to be *able* to talk (I did plan for them to be dealt with by non combat if you approached it right).
GM: I'm working on it, ok?
Players: Anything else?
GM: Oh right yes, perception checks. Everyone add roll d20 and add your perception.
GM: Kitty, add, um, +5. Smell is good.
GM: Anyway, the general gist is that you remember to watch out for the menacing pair of eyes the foraging parties reported in the forest.
GM: It's tailing you, obviously.
Kitty: Is it a cat?
GM: I can neither confirm nor deny it being retconned into the obviously narratively appropriate species.
Party: We could... split up. To um, see if we can get close enough to it.
GM: Or you could not do that.
Party: Ok, *sigh*. If it's not attacking as a group, we'll just press on.
GM: Good call.

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How to adjudicate when the GM and player have diverging expectations?

Someone has to act as arbiter, and by default that's the GM, but when the GM decides, what should they decide?

I have no one answer, but a few principles.

If it doesn't matter much, get it out of the way quickly, and defer any discussion about the rules till later.

If the player had a particular expectation, try not to undermine them. I think this is one of the most important things to try to deal with in the moment.

If the player misunderstood an explanation and tried to jump across a 100" wide chasm not a 10" wide chasm, you may need to clarify some other things, but at a minimum, you probably want to say, "you'll just fall to your death, do you want to do something else?" not "are you sure?" "uh, yeah, why?" "ok, you fall to your death".

That applies whether you have someone who knows what the official rules say and was relying on it. If they've set up a shot that depends on the cover rules working the way the rules say and you've never previously altered, it sucks for them to have that yanked out from under them if you improv something instead. Or whether you have a new player who doesn't know what's covered mechanically or not, and tries to do something dramatic like swinging on a chandelier that in-rules doesn't provide any combat advantage. In both cases, the player shouldn't have a hissy fit, but also in both cases, it's your job to do the best you can in the spur of the moment to allow the player's action or give a good substitute. FWIW, I would allow the first player their interpretation of the rules that once, and if it kills an important NPC, I never rely on an important NPC surviving. And for the second player I'd do something like, "make a dex check, if you succeed, attack with a modest bonus (or choose to knock the enemy back)". That fits the sort of action they wanted.

If it's a one-off, it probably doesn't matter much. If it's going to come up repeatedly (eg. rules for hiding), get past the immediate problem, and then review the situation later. Check what the rules really say. Decide if you'd prefer those, or some modification. Check with the player if they have a sensible request, and if so, consider if it makes sense. Then make a decision, make it clear and stick to it.

If you're not sure which rule to go with? Look for easy to adjudicate (if it doesn't matter, you can always go with what's in the book). Look for fun -- the beginner is right, random stunts should TOTALLY be in lots of combat, and it's a flaw in the rules they're not. Look for ones that avoid breaking a tone you're evoking. Look for which way your players would prefer.

Part of this is just, how to make good rulings in the heat of a moment whichever side you come down on.

Part of it is, where do you draw the line between "what happens because of common sense" and "what happens because what it says in the rules". There's a gulf of people's expectations. Both in terms of tone (is this action adventure where heroes do things humans MIGHT be able to do? Or more like an epic norse legend, where great heroes wrestle sea-serpents?) and in terms of pedantry (do you expect the GM to allow an unconscious villain to have their throat slit? or rely on the weapon rules on how much damage that deals?). There's an amount you can stretch to accommodate different players, but only so far: beyond that, you just have to accept you want to play different things.

It's important to figure out if that's happening or not. You can totally have a tone that has character drama all over the place, *and* swashbuckling *and* fart jokes (see: all of Shakespeare). But if 4/5 players want wall-to-wall drama and one wants fart jokes, it may well not work. And the same in reverse.

Likewise, you can easily have some characters who chose well-optimised powers for their class, and some who chose whatever felt cool, and as long as there's not a big difference in power, it's fine. But if some characters want to hand wave away combat to get to the character interaction, and the other characters want to use the class abilities they just levelled up into, it's a stretch to keep both happy. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't.

But that's often the underlying dynamic when players react in very different ways, they're focussing on different parts of the adventure, and you want to give both what they want, but avoid what you give one player obviating what the other player wants. Eg. if conversation is always pointless when combat happens, people who want to learn about NPCs are screwed. If you let one character do things because they're cool, but everyone else sticks to the rules, the other players are eclipsed. Can you do both, or not?
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A long time ago, there was a DnD module tomb of horrors, and every so often since there's been some controversy about it.

AIUI, it was the equivalent of playing a computer game on iron-man difficulty, with no saves, only one life, etc. It was designed for experienced players who wanted a really deadly challenge, often at conventions where there might be an audience.

The general features are (a) there's a lot of challenges that involve player decisions, not specific skills, whether the characters are appropriately really really careful about everything they do. (b) when something goes wrong, it's usually very deadly.

That meant, if you expected "fair" to mean "forgiving", it's really really not -- if you're the slightest bit incautious, you'll likely all die immediately. But if you expected "fair" to mean, "your death stem directly from your decisions" then it is more so than most adventures[1].

But if you don't know that, there is a lot of ire between people who loved it, people who think this is "the one true way" of how a session should be, and people who tried it and became incredibly resentful. It's good that the far end of a bell curve exists when that's something some people want to find, even if *most* modules should be somewhere left of it.

I did once play with a GM who played a few sessions of it inbetween campaigns. I liked the idea, although I usually like roleplaying with more story.

[1] There are some flaws where it might not be completely fair, or ambiguous descriptions, etc, but less than most modules at the time iirc.
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DnD 4e and 5e introduced the idea of skill challenges. Basically a unified framework for handling various things other than combat or parallel to combat that should involve more back and forth than a single roll, like a chase scene, or defusing a bomb.

The idea is, instead of a single "defuse bomb" roll, you need multiple things, open the panel without setting something off, find the deadman's switch, choose the right wire, cut it.

And these might be things that require a variety of skills.

4e designed a version which really rubbed me up the wrong way. It optimised for designing a scenario that could be run mechanically for different groups and present a particular level of challenge, and assumed that each challenge would be defined by "achieve N successes before X failures, using skills A, B, C or D".

I've only skimmed the rules for 5e but it seems to be somewhat more freeform. Because I thought this was a *great* idea, basically codifying something that a good GM would do automatically, but I really didn't like the way it was hard-coded, and presented to the players up-front.

Ideally, it should be obvious without specifying to the players. For the bomb, maybe each failure makes the bomb arm itself, then begin flashing, then finally explode. You don't know for sure how many steps, but you can tell things are getting critical. (And if you're aiming for fun rather than challenge, the GM can escalate or descelate the requirements according to how challenging this encounter should be compared to other ones that have happened this session.) It should be obvious which skills might apply, but they might lead to different paths -- a knowledge skill might open up an easier path to success, not count as a success/failure itself; different skills might stack or not; etc.

Or it ties into combat, each failure makes combat more difficult (it makes the platform you're standing on move dangerously or lets more enemies catch up), or you need to coordinate making skill rolls with other characters doing combat.

If you're improv'ing, that's all fairly easy to do, even though it's hard to spec in advance.

I said on twitter, skill challenges are a great idea, but I find it more fun if it's "how the GM designs the scenario" not "a mechanic the players need to be familiar with". Now I think of it, I see the same contrast with "what monsters you encounter". That easily can be pre-specified, and the players know, basically, the mechanics are "here's the monsters who exist" or "they spawn every two rounds" (as in 4e)[1], and know everyone faced a similar challenge. Or it can be improvised -- if the players faff around, the reinforcements arrive early, if they players have a lucky plan to bar a door, they can't come in, etc, etc. (as I'd like it).

[1] This makes sense from a tactical combat perspective, but I found very frustrating. Every 2 rounds skeletons climb out of a sarcophagus. No, you can't look inside. No, you can't judge how many skeletons could fit inside. No, you can't judge what sort of spell or effect is responsible (well, you can, but you can't expect it to matter). No, you can't try to block the lid. It's screaming "accept the premise and desperately avoid imagining being there". Except that if you do that, you have no way to judge "having the infinite spawning skeletons finished or will they continue" and are punished for guessing wrong. I feel like you could have 90% of the effect by saying "there's a pile of bones, a skeleton assembles itself out of them, there's still 3/4 of the pile left" or "the sundered skeleton parts begin to reassemble themselves" or "the air shimmers and a skeleton warrior sprouts from the ground".
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After running a couple of roleplaying sessions with quad & family, I would like to try to run something regularly in addition to whatever I run with them. I'm probably going to aim for once a month depending on interest.

I'm going to start by running a lightly revamped version of the DnD 5e one-shot I ran for quad before.


Passengers on a ship, driven far out to sea in a storm and beached for repairs on an abandoned island. 30 years ago it was home to a pirate lord, Erik Twicecursed and his BFF Grignir Hammerhead. While repairs succeed, the captain asks for volunteers to explore the abandoned and reputed-cursed pirate lair.

There may be treasure. There will almost certainly be combat encounters. Hilarious misunderstandings of the skill system and trigger happy party wizards are not guaranteed, but likely.

DnD 5e. For people new to roleplaying I will give you a pregenerated 1st level character sheet but suggest you invent a character who's more interesting to you, and change any specifics accordingly. If you're familiar with the system you're welcome to generate a 1st level character however you like.


This Saturday 2pm. It may run into the evening, in which case we'll probably have pizza.

If you're interested, comment here or email me by midnight Fri, and I will send you directions. (North cambridge, but may be lifts available if transport is an issue.)

You don't need to bring anything. If you're excited to do so anyway, things that could be useful: bring 5e books if you have them; read a little about 5e online; think about a character concept, not so much detailed background, as what they like doing and how they might be connected to other characters (member of ships company? bodyguard? relatives?)

Also let me know if you'd be interested in future one-shots or campaigns.


I have a campaign in mind following this session, but think it makes sense to schedule several one-shots and see which people are interested in coming back to.

People were very enthusiastic about my putative vorkosigan campaign, and I would really, really like to run that, but it will not be this weekend, it needs more prep time. But if you're interested and think you could actually make time to come, please let me know. (If it happens I plan a series of connected stand-alone sessions, so I might well be able to run one if I'm in london for the day, even if other sessions take place with people in Cambridge.)
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I wish I was not so amateur at this. I think it's worth me thinking and talking about it, but I'm sorry when that comes across as unhelpful.

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Again, my brain has got totally wrapped up in roleplaying. Except, I feel enough more confident GMing I may actually do something about it this time. I want to finish session with osos, and get some more one-shots in, and consider running something regular (maybe once a month). Ideally something where (a) there is an ongoing arc, so I don't need to do too much worldbuilding when I'm busy but (b) each session is self-contained, so it can be with "whoever's free", and not feel like it's only worth it if you come to all. Maybe mixed with some pure one-shots if I have cool ideas. "You travel in a boat or spaceship but not all of you leave at every port" would work well). I have *too many* ideas, but hopefully can decide on something practical to try out.
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Especially for a one-shot or a new party, strive to have the first few minutes include (a) some kind of positive choice by the PCs to establish them as making choices, not just doing what you say and (b) include a FLASHING NEON OBVIOUS HOOK SAYING "HERO'S GO HERE" so the players have an immediate goal/challenge to work towards. I keep trying to make this much much more obvious and still falling short.

Remember pcs and npcs may have ranged attacks, make sure encounter is sensible if so.

If a PC has helped or angered an NPC organisation, note it down, it may not be anything, but it might be a useful hook later.

This is a big different-style-for-different people, but for me, when I'm thinking for 5e or 3.5e, plan a variety of encounters some of which will be bypassed or won in one lucky action, don't try and make each separate combat equally difficult. (Many people play the opposite, that each combat should be a separate winnable tactical challenge.)

Understand what players are likely to want, not in terms of free gifts, but in terms of what they want to achieve with their character.

Don't usually fudge things after they're already in play. If one lucky roll can wipe out the the monsters or the party, it can be too obvious if you adjust it on the fly. But do design flexible encounters that can be included or not, so if the first half is harder/easier than expected, you can rejig the overall difficulty to be about what you wanted by including or leaving out some of the encounters later.

In general plan lots of small things, and only include what fits well at the time. Make up locations, NPCs, backstory, history, cool NPC speeches, cool environmental effects... so they're there when you want to use them or when the players ask. But don't commit yourself to what you'll include on the spot, trust yourself what to pull in or leave out as it comes up, or what to replace with a better idea.

On a smaller scale, the same for objects, NPCs, locations, etc. Sketch a bunch of detail, and tell the players *some* of it, and more as needed. Just make sure you clearly separate some scene-setting with a nice clear understanding of "there's a big ogre here" :)

Likewise, don't plan a linear sequence of events, plan a physical layout or a political situation, plan at least one "obvious" path through, with an end the players will get to eventually, drop them in, and let things happen. They'll generally explore *most* of it, and whatever happens last can be the finale, if it's what you expected or not. It usually falls into place as a reasonable story for the session, and fits a lot better because the players feel like their choices were right, not like they were just guessing what you intended.

And feel free to plan some set pieces of a dramatic showdown in the ballroom. But if the players get horribly sidetracked and then blunder into the BBEG on the rooftop instead, don't try to force it, cannibalise the relevant parts to the new rooftop encounter, and save any other cool ideas for another time.
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Liv: I was thinking a ranger fit my character in most ways, but I'm a sailor not a tracker.
Liv: I'm not sure what skills to take.
Me: It's ok. Take survival, that deals with "wilderness-type-stuff" including a lot of appropriate things and some others like tracking. We'll switch out "wilderness-type" for "ship-related".
Me: It's not like there's going to be a lot of tracking.
Me: (sotto voice) Except in the first session. I didn't really think this through.
Liv: What?
Me: Nothing.
Me; (sotto voice) Maybe someone will spontaneously volunteer to play the ship's cat.
Liv: What?
Me: Nothing.

Cleric: We don't have a proper tracker, but it looks like the footprints go that way.
Fighter: My rating is about the same as yours, but that sounds right to me.
Cleric: OK, now... I'm not sure.
Fighter: Me neither.
Wizard: I don't have survival or a wisdom score worth mentioning, but I roll high.
Wizard: I'm not expect, but maybe we should look for footprints in the soft mud by the stream, about 2 yards that way?

Cleric: Whew, that was an eventful stream-crossing
Cleric: Maybe I should have cast "detect traps"
Cleric: Wait, or does that only count if someone put an unpleasant surprise there? If it just happened, it doesn't find it? Would it have worked?
Me: That's a very philosophical question.
Cleric: I mean, someone like an NPC. "God" doesn't count.
Cleric: Nor "GM".
Me: Oh. Then no.
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Previous session http://cartesiandaemon.livejournal.com/951049.html

I have fictionalised the write-up somewhat, because different things are fun to read than to play, and in case any of you come when I run this scenario again.


GM: ... and that's why levelling up in 5e is simpler than most previous editions.
GM: In theory.
GM: So, anyway, the captain,
GM: The ship's captain, not army Captain Amelficus, veteran of the elf wars, one semi-successful diplomatic mission, and the adventure of the lightly-crispy fried toad-seals.
GM: Summons you to a meeting of the captain, a few trusted passengers, the first mate, and the heretofore unmentioned second mate, played by Liv.
Second mate: I'm friends with the ships cat.
Second mate: I'm a lot like Bel Thorn, but I use "they" pronouns not "it" pronouns.
GM: She thanks you for help before.
GM: And lobs some simple hooks to draw you into the conversation
GM: And says, in a SHOCKING TWIST, the journals you found hint at the location of POWERFUL MAGICAL ARTIFACTS. On this VERY ISLAND.
Ship's Captain: And, um, I don't want to impose on you further, but since (a) you've already proven your trustworthiness (b) TREASURE (c) you're the PCs, how would you feel about, tracking it down and bringing it back?
GM: I warn you, there may be a a variety of level-appropriate encounters, probably just enough to bring you to level 3.
GM: And take the first mate, because she knows about it. And I don't trust her.
First mate: Blah blah blah I am untrustworthy blah.
GM: Or leave her behind, because I don't trust her. I haven't decided.
GM: First mate: I will leave the room now. Absolutely definitely.
GM: First mate: And not ambiguously leave the room in a fashion which leaves most players uncertain about who is actually present for the next scene.
Ship's Captain: And if you wouldn't mind, maybe just once sleep in the store room where the journals, treasure, etc are stored, just in case first mate tries to abscond with them.
GM: In the actual session, I did quite well remembering which NPC was which, but I'm using titled in this write up for your convenience.
GM: And if you could all just debate this question amongst yourselves for a bit to get invested in the adventure, that would be good too.
Party: OK, sounds good. We bed down.
GM: Whew. OK, thank goodness. When I told you to prepare your character sheets assuming you'd recovered max health, I really hoped we wouldn't get any combats with your hitpoints still where they were um last year.

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Playstyle mismatch


Other-player: My 2nd level Wizard casts a fireball, uses it as a rocket to propel themselves at the dragon and make a charge attack.

GM: That's so epic! Forget the dice roll! The charge rips right through the dragon's body, landing your wizard right next to the tied up princess.

Tactician: I take a defensive stance and ready an action to fire my bow.

GM: Ok. Now the dragon attacks you both.

Other Player: I swing my sword to cut a hole in the dragon's claw and then jump through at the last minute!

Tactician: My defensive stance gives me +2.

GM: Other player, you make it! Sorry Tact, your +2 doesn't cut it against the dragon.
This was an example of how, a player who's instinctive or most-enjoyed play style isn't matched by the GM's style, can get bored and lose interest.

But what I found interesting was that it wasn't a matter of one style being right and the other wrong. In this case, it was a tactician feeling neglected because the play only rewarded epic over-the-top-ness. But another game could have the exact reverse, the other player's gambit being met with "if you do that, the fireball just blows up in your face", and lots of detailed situations where mastery of your character's written abilities is rewarded.

The archetypes come from Robin Law's Good Gamemastering Guide (Power-gamer wants success; Butt-kicker wants to kick down the door and cut loose; the Tactician wants to do well on their own merit; the Method Actor, and a couple of others including a casual gamer who plays occasionally or for the first time and has different needs again.) It's interesting to see how those archetypes are similar to and different to other sets of archetypes often discussed.

But that it's definitely possible to have a game encompassing a fair breadth of different styles. But this example shows, sometimes people want things that are so different it's essentially impossible to cram in one without giving up the other (and that's fine if you recognise that).

The archetypal adventuring party


Q: An Ogre has over twice the HP of four goblins combined and can kill a 2nd-level character in a single blow. A 4-character party of 2nd-levelers could easily take out 4 goblins in a single round, while a 1-round defeat of an Ogre is highly unlikely. But the encounter multiplier table lists four goblins together as a slightly harder challenge, why?

A: With the ogre, although he's big and tough he's tactically easy: Bigpecs McFighter can beat on him up close while Pewpew Van Fireball blasts him from range.

With the goblins, while Bigpecs is beating one down, the rest come in from behind and play pin-the-kidney-on-the-wizard. Requires some more tactical smarts to deal with the goblins effectively. (And that more attacks can give a greater chance of killing one PC.)

B: Thanks for naming two of my NPC characters! Let's fill out the rest of the party then: Tippytoe O'Stab and Friar Bandaid.
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Armour Class

Emblematic of 5e reducing the spread between low and high level is something I noticed in the monster manual, armour class is even flatter than other stats, that first level players are generally fighting monsters with AC 12-15, 20 might be possible for something fragile but really hard to hit. But the highest AC in the whole thing is the Tarrasque with AC only 25. Which doesn't mean level 20s are not mythological compared to level 1s, but that they improve in ways other than "bigger numbers", and low-level monsters are relevant for longer.

"Legendary" monsters

I also like what they did with some really tough monsters, like adult dragons. They have two features which make them effective as a large single monster. They have extra actions they take after other people's turns (often a simple attack). That means that combat is more interactive than "ok, you win initiative you marmelise the dragon before it acts" or "ok, the dragon wins initiative, it kills you, you and you" even if there's only one monster.

And also, instead of spell resistance, they have three "legendary points" which let them pass a saving throw they would otherwise have failed. That means, "I mind control the dragon" is never a game-winner, but nor is it completely useless. I don't know why that feels more appropriate than spell resistance, but it does to me -- maybe that it didn't make sense to me that "big and tough" automatically meant "resistance to magic", but "I'm just that epic" fits naturally into "you can't take me out in one hit".

There is still spell resistance in a simpler form (they have a bonus on saving throw) for a few monsters where it's appropriate.

But I also notice, it's one mechanic that stays leaning into a videogame or story-telling mode than a simulationist mode -- there's no in-world understanding of what this is, it just makes things more dramatic, and is explicitly appropriate for large single monsters (I might use the same mechanic for a party of 0th level halflings fighting a troll, but not for a party of gods fighting a swarm of adult dragons).

Stunts in combat

A problem I often had with players first getting into a mechanics-heavy roleplaying system like DnD is when someone does something dramatic like "I jump over the balcony swinging on the chandelier and attack the orc from above". There are no rules for that, really not, and it's easy for the GM to revert to a habit of saying "you can't" or "ok, you roll an attack" or "ok, here's the rules for jumping, no, it doesn't say you get any benefit". You do want to embrace that! (At least in my sort of 50/50 roleplaying, if you're concentrating on miniature wargaming, then maybe not.)

But I read an article that pointed out, if you default to fancy stunts being "make a str/dex check against DC 15, if you do, you get a small bonus to an attack, or another effect like driving them back", then it usually just works -- the dramatic move has a clear advantage, but not such a big one that usual combat is pointless. So it allows a reasonable amount of adlibbing.

It also suggests allowing the target a saving throw. I might just ignore that in the case of one-off stunts, or stunts against minion-enemies, but it says it's a useful balancing feature in any case where the stunt might make a big different ("I want to push the lich off the cliff", "I want to disarm EVERY COMBAT").

The wandering monster table is like the audience members who yell out suggestions on an improv show


The wandering monster table is like the audience members who yell out suggestions on an improv show: Simply yelling out “mime” and “airplane” doesn’t make for a comedy show; it requires the improv actors to create a sketch about a mime pilot making an announcement over the plane’s intercom system for that. Similarly, just having random “giant spiders” attack the PCs because the table says so doesn’t make for an adventure; what you need are giant spiders in a particular place for a particular reason and doing a particular thing.

I definitely used to think "wandering monster, huh, why would you do that?" But now, although I haven't tried it, I can see when it could be a useful approach:

You wouldn't necessarily use this when you know in advance somewhere's important, where you hopefully will plan it in advance.

But consider when you're simulating an area more detailed than you can conceivably plan in advance. OK, you're sneaking into an orc camp. You plan the areas, where most orcs are. But they're also going to be wandering about, getting a snack, leaving to scout, etc. You can't plan every single Orc's hunger level. Probably the best way of giving that effect is to say "about every 5 minutes, some orc wanders SOMEWHERE", and if the players are still sneaking about, roll randomly to discover what the orcs are doing.

And the same if the players are exploring a dungeon larger than 5 rooms; it's big enough the monsters probably do wander about, if you're pretending there's some sort of ecology, and if you assume that, it adds a bit of verisimilitude over just "the monsters wait where they are until you find them". And it can also lead to more interesting exploring -- the PCs are not incentivised to always clear through methodically, but to choose trade-offs "safer to hole up for the night or go deeper while we can?"

And it can lead to awesome moments. Some things are more interesting when they happened by chance, which is why there's a random element in combat. If the giant earthworm blunders across the party when they're half-way through crossing a pit-trap, or an NPC party with the very item the party needed are camped in the first room, and everyone knows the GM decided it, it's just "ah, now the GM is screwing with us". But if it's chance, it can lead to hilarious memories.
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I have written a couple of one-shot adventures for DnD 5e designed to be easy and enjoyable and complete in up to 4h, and run one of them for ghoti et al which I count as a success and was really fun.

Is anyone else interested in playing, even if they can't commit to a regular campaign? Especially anyone who always wanted to try roleplying, or experienced GMs who may offer me some constructive advice, but everyone else too :)

If people are, I will put up a poll for scheduling.
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Immense thanks to ghoti, cjwatson, and B for helping playtest my 5e one-shot! It definitely needed some polishing, but it went fairly smoothly considering I've never used 5e before and none of them had played DnD before at all.

I might have another write-up with more specifics about what I thought went well and what I think I need to practice on, but I couldn't resist posting a dramatised account of the first half of the adventure. (I hope that's ok?)

Cpt: I'm Captain Amelfica. I'm a trained elf battlemage, veteran of the elf wars. We carried the whole continent then, I don't trust humans or dwarves not to bungle anything, or to just steal it. I'm playing a hardened veteran who's seen it all before, more so than I actually am. (B)
Princess: I'm the swashbuckling princess Miranda, daughter of the Duke. I'm kind-hearted and well meaning but always getting into trouble. (ghoti)
Priest: I'm Miranda's court chaplain, ex-army-chaplain. I think she should stop charging headfirst into caves full of-- come back! (cjwatson)
GM: Your ship is blown off course in a storm, and a threatening spectral visage appeared in the wind, sabotaging the rigging and driving the ship ashore. (Me)
GM: The captains asks for brave volunteers to try to track the spirit and try to drive it off so they can launch the ship again.
GM: Or you're foraging for supplies.
GM: Um, let me check my notes, I can't remember how this bit was meant to go.
GM: If I run this again, I need to make it clearer.
GM: OK, You scramble along the bottom of the cliffs.
GM: Who's going first?
Party: The wizard!
Read more... )
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I've been browsing the alexandrian blog with various roleplaying reviews and advice. He periodically reposts reviews he made 15 years ago for rpg.net. A couple are funny.


A parody game, including cards such as "Wizards of the Coast. The publishers of a hot new card game. Though they have money, they aren't exactly in the same league as TSR. If they survive Magic The Gathering, look out!"

Which was a bit of a lame joke at the time, but after WotC became a fantasy roleplaying juggernaut buying most other related companies, is funny in retrospect.


Settlers of Catan: "hex-based maps from every wargame you’ve ever seen; combinations of resource cards are basically a mechanic from Risk; maintaining diplomatic relations from Diplomacy; variable board set-up from Chess variants; and trading resources from many variants of Monopoly), but the true aficionado will recognize a whole which is greater than the parts."

It's strange to read a review where Settles of Catan is new and no-one knew if it would be as promising as it seemed yet :)

And from rpg exchange: http://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/34825/whats-the-inspiration-for-the-owlbear

A question it hadn't occurred to me to ask, why does the rust monster look the way it does? Why the owlbear? Because the designer had a cereal-packet-style bag of mythical plastic monsters from japan that were supposed to be dinosaurs, but took their distinctive appearance for the new monsters :)
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DnD 5e

A while back I bought the 5e DnD ("DnD Next" or "DnD") player's handbook and just now have been reading through it. I actually really like it.

It reminds me of 3.5 but streamlined, with a few of the good aspects of earlier editions and 4e. That's about what I wanted out of DnD!

Many of the combat rules are simplified a bit, but look about equally balanced. Progression is simplified -- feats are more powerful, but optional, you can take them instead of a stat increase. Thus they do more to define your character and less to "here's a feat-tree you have to take".

There's no separate saves, you make a "dex save" or "con save". Your character has a single proficiency bonus which scales with level from +2 to about +5, which is added to everything you character is good at (weapons they're proficient with, skills they're trained with, etc).

They've added some fluff to the front page of the character sheet (personality trait, ideal, bond, flaw) and a suggesting for getting temporary mechanical advantage when your flaw comes into play. I have ideas for those bits up, to focus people further on the bits that actually come up in play (whether they matter mechanically or not).

The classes and races are similar to 3e -- there's the classic races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling) and further races (tiefling, dragonborn, gnome, half-orc) which don't automatically exist in all settings.

Like 4e, all spellcasters have a few infinite use cantrips which function as their standard attack options. I like that all characters have something specific to do in combat. And like 4e, fighter has some abilities beyond "hit it with my axe" to bring into play in combat -- although not many, I think that could be beefed up.

It reverts to generally winging the exact physical layout rather than using a battlemap. Which I like because combat is simpler and faster. Although I admit, it does remove some of the good effects in 4e, that there were many more tactical options for the party to work together, other than "we all hit it repeatedly".

The general power level is flatter between 1st level and 20th level, even more so than 4e. I think this is probably good, since it's almost impossible to balance things at both ends, but it does potentially mean less variation. But it has good effects that a character a few level higher than you" feels like "an adventurer like you, but more experienced" not "a demigod". And that there's less artificial scaling where every PC gets regular stat boosts to increase to-hit and damage-per-second and armour-class -- as does every monster.

It seems like, 1st level is really a tutorial level (although actually, I'd like an EVEN SIMPLER introduction for some newbies) where characters all have stuff they can do, but some of the key class features kick in at second level (eg. rogue has backstab damage at first level, but gets a free disengage/hide action from second which is nearly as class-defining). 4th or 5th feels like a typical point for experienced 3.5e players.

In addition to flattening the power level, the magic-item economy is gone. The classes are designed to be balanced mostly as-is, with a minimum amount of gold and almost no magic items. So you can run a low-magic campaign where the only magic is PC and NPC spellcasters, and add a magic sword for effect when it seems dramatic, not assume that everyone is carting around cartloads of +1 stuff else they're unplayable.

I think it could sensibly by used to run either an old-school "kick in the door and take as much treasure as you can before you die" session or a "mostly about roleplaying with some combat" session which are the sorts I enjoy the most.

4e is probably better for tactical combat -- I like that in theory, but never find it works well for me in practice.

Has anyone actually tried 5e?

FATE core and FATE accelerated

I've also been following a couple of people's suggestions and reading about FATE. IIUC it's based on ideas from FUDGE, based on a very freeform mechanics-light structure. Ideal for "here's a wacky idea about X" or "here's an existing setting (Dresden Files) with clear flavour but vague on specifics, can we adapt that to a game" and producing setting and character sheets with minimal write-up and no need to spend ages trying to balance PC activities.

Basically it sounds really fun if you want an adventure without tactical combat at all (there's still some tactics, but not based primarily on characters specific abilities).

Although some people apparently flounder if they're used to DnD -- there's definitely a "everyone should choose things that are appropriate, not always what would be most effective for the character". (Like Dogs-in-the-Vineyard, it seems it's more fun to pick character traits which come up about half the time -- but some people find it hard to resist arguing that they ALWAYS apply.)

Has anyone actually tried any of the editions of FATE?
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I wrote up a checklist for a quick-and-dirty way to design an interesting character, something like:

* A code/belief/trait you live by even if it's inconvenient (by choice or inability to resist)
* An aspiration, a dream you want to eventually achieve
* A connection to at least one person in your party
* A connection to at least one person in the world
* Something you've learned how to do well

And then I thought "I shouldn't be applying this to a roleplaying game, I should be applying it to myself" :)