Friday, September 18, 2020

Every player, every turn

 Something I've struggled with at my game tables in the past, and something that's happened at every table at which I've been seated as a player, too, is the time-keeping muddle in "exploration mode." It happens something like this: 

The characters move and enter a new area, where the DM describes what they see. One player immediately wants to do something, and then immediately wants to follow up on that something. Say, there's a pile of trash in the room. Player checks the pile, and DM announces there's a chest hidden in the mess. Player wants to check for traps, then open the chest, and so on. During this time, the other players are left twiddling their thumbs, until the entire sequence is resolved to the first player's satisfaction. Then another player (or maybe even the same one!) wants to check out some other feature of the area, and a similar sequence ensues. Often the most experienced or most assertive player(s) dominate(s) the decision-making, and thus the action. 

So, how many turns did the party take in that room? Which actions happened concurrently, and which sequentially? And, just as importantly, did the less assertive players get a chance to join the game, or did they end up as mere spectators while the take-charge ones (maybe unintentionally) hogged all the action? 

One solution to the problem is to go strictly turn-by-turn, with players announcing their intentions at the start of each turn. You can let the group confer for a few minutes to decide what everyone's doing, and then make the announcements, either each player speaking for his/her character, or a caller relaying everything to the DM. Another method is to let each player announce without the group conference, going clockwise around the table, and each turn rotating the first move one spot clockwise, so everyone gets chances to go first. This may be a good approach to get shy or passive players involved.

Every player should choose something to do every turn, even if it's something seemingly trivial like watching other characters do their things.

If a player chooses to do something passive, like keep watch at a doorway or observe another character opening a chest, that character should get a chance to react in the same turn if something changes. If you roll a wandering monster, the door sentry will notice it first, perhaps with a reduced or no chance to be surprised. If the characters opening the chest trigger a trap, the one watching can rush forth to aid them with healing spells or potions or some such. 

This makes exploration mode a lot more structured, interestingly not unlike combat. I sometimes wonder if that lax attitude toward exploration is one of the factors that caused the game to shift over time to a much more combat-oriented format. After all, in combat, every player gets a chance to do something each round, whether or not they're willing or able to get a word in edgewise in a group that includes more outspoken players. Why shouldn't the same hold true in other parts of the game?

Sunday, September 6, 2020

New dwarf class

 I love dwarves and halflings, but I'm not a big fan of demihuman characters taking up the same adventuring classes as humans. I would like them to have a little more variety, though. I worked up a couple of new classes that, to me, fit the feel of these non-human folk for my Goblins & Greatswords rules, so I thought I'd adapt them for old school D&D too. Here's a uniquely dwarven class for B/X, Labyrinth Lord, or whatever other old school game graces your table.


Dwarves are not, as a general rule, given to larceny, so there are no proper thieves among them. Dwarf adventurers who seek riches by their wits instead of force of arms are known as prospectors. 

RESTRICTIONS: Prospectors use six-sided dice (d6) to roll their  hit points, until 9th level, and gain +2 hit points per level thereafter until reaching their maximum of level 12. The Prime Requisite for prospectors is Wisdom, and they earn a bonus of +5% to earned experience points for a score of 13-15, and +10% for 16-18. Like standard dwarves, a prospector must have a Constitution score of 9 or higher.

A prospector may use any small or medium-sized melee weapon, favoring those that can double as tools such as axes, hammers, and picks (treat as axes in combat,) as well as crossbows and slings. They do not wear metal armor, due to it interfering with their special senses (see below,) but may wear leather armor. They cannot use shields.

They advance on the same XP progression as fighters, but use the cleric/thief attack matrices and make saving throws as a standard dwarf.

 SPECIAL ABILITIES: Prospectors have the thief abilities Open Locks, Find/Remove Traps, and Hear Noise as a thief of equal level. They also have the detection abilities of a standard dwarf, and the same chances to detect hollow spaces in stone within 10' and underground sources of water and fresh air, if any are within 120'. A prospector can sense the presence of precious metals and gems within 10' per level of experience by facing in the desired direction and concentrating for a full turn. A prospector can automatically judge the purity of precious metals simply by touching them for one round, and thus cannot be fooled by fakes, no matter how convincing.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Random resolution

 We all know a lot of good reasons to roll dice in D&D -- impartiality, inspiration, injecting the unexpected into a game. What I'm looking at in this post is when it's appropriate to use random rolls to resolve character actions in-game, whether as a formal game design choice or as an ad hoc ruling during play.

The first qualification: Assuming success and failure are both realistic possibilities, does failing at this action have interesting consequences? If not, there's no point in dragging things out. Just say "yes," maybe apply a cost in terms of time or party resources, and move on.

The second qualification is more complicated: Is it possible to fail without touching the dice, i.e. by a player's mistake or oversight?

Failure is an inherent risk of relying on player skill. A player can misjudge a risk, overlook a detail, or fail to realize the significance of a cue or clue. This happens all the time even (especially!) in games with no random elements at all, else nobody could ever win or lose a game of chess or checkers. 

In D&D, players can fail to find a secret door by not choosing to search where it is, or by failing to interact with features the DM describes in the right way to trigger it. Players can fail to detect a trap if they misinterpret or decide not to investigate the scorch marks, dried blood, or pulverized stone you describe in front of a door. Players can fail to acquire information by choosing to attack first and ask questions later, or by shrugging at that shelf full of moldy books in that out-of-the-way dungeon chamber. Players can botch a social encounter by not heeding cues, by acting unnecessarily belligerent, or many various other ways. Handled well by the DM, none of these situations need random determination, let alone character skill, to resolve them.

Picking a lock is another matter. There's no clear point at which player skill could fail. It's not normally something that is hidden, so the player isn't going to botch finding the lock. It's not a case in which most players could describe in detail how their character picks the lock, beyond the very obvious ("I insert the lockpick in the lock and poke around, keeping my hand very steady.") Unless you want lock-picking to be an automatic success (which pretty much negates the point of locks,) it's a very good candidate for a random resolution mechanic, perhaps modified by a character skill dedicated to that very task. 

Bottom line: If a possible failure state exists in player actions alone, it's usually more fun not to diminish the players' agency by bringing dice into the equation. If there's not a baked-in window for failure, and failure would drive interesting choices in play,  a random mechanic may be appropriate. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Player skill vs. character skill

 A lot has been written on the subject of player skill vs. character skill, by minds more steeped in RPG theory than mine, but nonetheless I had some thoughts, and I'm going to write them down.

Player skill in tabletop RPGs is simply the ability of making good decisions within the context of a game*. ("Good" in the case of D&D-like games encompasses facilitating such outcomes as character survival, the acquisition of loot, discovery of interesting features, accomplishing party goals, and of course a fun time at the game table.) Perhaps I should say good, meaningful decisions. There must be enough information available to make the decision more than a mere coin toss (or worse, an obvious case of "one right answer," and the decision must produce some outcome different from other possible courses of action. It's easy to see that an emphasis on player skill is inseparable from an emphasis on player agency. Without agency, player skill never really comes into play.

*Naturally, other types of games test other areas of player skill, e.g. hand-eye coordination, agility, speed, etc. But we're not playing darts or Super Mario Bros., so these aren't of much interest here.

I would define character skill as any feature of a character that takes direct control away from the player. Character skill is usually (but not necessarily always) tied to randomized results, and represented by modifiers to (or modifications of) certain types of random rolls, e.g. a fighter's THAC0 or attack bonus, a thief's Open Lock percentage, or a cleric's Turn Undead ability. 

Note that, for purposes of this discussion, I am not considering character abilities which are completely under the control of the player to be "character skills," as such. Though a knock spell is certainly a skill possessed by a character, it is wholly the player's decision which determines how effectively it is used. 

It's often noted that old school play emphasizes player skill over character skill, but the truth is a little more nuanced than that. Clearly, character skill has a place in old school games, often a very important one. The relatively simple combat rules in many old school rule sets, for instance, rely heavily on character skill. 

To me, the maxim "player skill over character skill" really means the subordination of character skill to player skill. The decision to use a character skill in the first place belongs to the player; in essence, the player makes a strategic decision and then delegates its implementation to the character. The player says, "I attack the orc," and the particulars of when to thrust, when to slash, how high to feint and parry, are left to the character's fictional expertise to handle, subsumed in a couple of dice rolls and modifiers. The DM doesn't say, "Roll for X" until the player announces, "I try to do X." In this way, character skill is simply a tool in the player skill toolbox: it informs the player's management of risk. 

(The only exception to this principle I can think of is saving throws, which are usually called for by the DM when player skill has already failed.)

Another aspect of "player skill over character skill" is that character skill should never replace the need for player skill, and as a corollary, should not override or reverse the results of player skill. For instance, social skills (persuasion, negotiation, intimidation, or *ugh* seduction) should not make it unnecessary for the players to actually role-play dealings with monsters and NPCs, nor should they be allowed to overturn natural results of role-playing. If a player, in-character says something an NPC would find highly insulting or threatening, the NPC should react accordingly, regardless of how high the persuasion roll is, and if the player offers a gift or bribe the NPC would find very attractive, it's inappropriate to have it rejected because of a failed persuasion check. If a player declares her character searches the right place in an appropriate way, the character should find what's there to be found, not overruled by a bad dice roll.

Character skill should not be a crutch for players who don't want to actively interact with the game environment, nor for DMs who can't be bothered to create details (either during prep or in the middle of a game) to properly inform player choices. It's easy (and lazy) to say, "Roll a search check!" when a player announces he wants to search the area. It's harder, but more fulfilling, to say, "You see a large wooden desk with many drawers, books piled on top, and beside it a pile of moldy rags. What do you do?" It's easy and lazy to say, "Roll a persuasion check!" when a PC wants something from an NPC; it's harder and more fulfilling to give this NPC motivations and desires and have the players figure out how to press the right buttons to get what they want from him.

Friday, November 29, 2019


Old school RPG combat is not a carefully balanced system meant for the players to win. It's a high-stakes affair, but its lethality can be mitigated somewhat by giving full consideration to other possible alternatives than fighting to the death. Fleeing is an oft-cited and important option, but there's another one less considered: surrender.

There are many reasons why monsters, particularly intelligent ones, may be willing, even eager, to accept the PCs' surrender. Surrender shortens a battle, avoiding the additional losses that even the victors will likely suffer if they fight on. In the long run, being open to surrender is also a great tactic for gaining more loot at less cost: if the monsters can cultivate a reputation for letting victims live, it encourages future victims to surrender with little or no bloodshed, a strategy used to great effect by real-world pirates. "Your money or your life" is a much more meaningful dilemma if you know your life will really be spared when you hand over your coin.

The PCs may also have more value as prisoners than as corpses. The monsters might keep them as slaves, sell them into slavery to another group, or demand ransom for their release. They might be kept alive as livestock for fresh meat later. Or the monsters might wish to interrogate them for information. Clever players may plead for their lives with promises to reveal the location of something valuable to the monsters. or to perform some unique service for them.

So, why is surrender as an option in a hopeless combat shunned while running away or fighting to the death is not?

For the players, it may be a matter of pride. Surrender may feel like a more ignominious action than retreat. Running away also has the advantage (if successful) of assuring the party will keep all or most of its equipment and treasure, while surrender often results in the losers being stripped of valuables. Finally, there's the possibility that captured enemies will simply be executed, thus resulting in a more certain death than fighting on against long odds.

The DM may be guilty, consciously or unconsciously, of making surrender an unattractive option. A DM who hasn't considered the possibilities or doesn't know how to turn a surrender into an interesting setback rather than total defeat, may steer players away from it. An adversarial DM who punishes the party harshly in-game for surrendering also pushes them toward a binary fight-or-flee attitude. Also, if the campaign is one where death is cheap, with an abundance of options for raising dead characters, the players will likely consider any combat that doesn't result in a TPK to be better than being captured or looted of favorite magic items and such.

How does one, as a DM, begin to reverse the stigma against surrender in a fantasy RPG?

1. Flat-out tell the players before beginning a campaign that they won't be able to win every fight, and retreat and surrender are both legitimate alternatives to getting slaughtered.

2. In-game, feed the players evidence that surrender is a setback, not an irredeemable defeat. Let them hear of a group of traders who surrendered to the local orc tribe and were allowed to live. Better yet, give them a strong example to follow. Maybe they hear accounts of experienced, brave, and respected adventurers, perhaps even mentors of the PCs, who have surrendered to opponents, and who have embraced the philosophy of "live to fight another day" rather than "death before dishonor." Have them recount their memories with pride or amusement rather than bitterness, to drive home the point that knowing when to admit you're beaten is just a part of the adventuring life, not a disaster you'll never live down.

3. Don't summarily execute characters who surrender. This should be so blatantly obvious, I almost didn't include it, but better to be thorough. If you decide the monsters would execute the PCs, at least let them mull their options for escape from a squalid cell for a while before the sentence is carried out. Surrender should be an opportunity to extend the story, not an excuse to cut it short.

4. Really consider what the monsters want out of the encounter. Dead PCs are not always a primary, or even secondary goal. Do the monsters want loot, food, prestige, information, to complete some task, or to protect their territory? Can they get some of what they want with minimal combat losses instead of risking their very existence to get the whole ball of wax? If so, why wouldn't they take it?

5. Surrender does not always have to be unconditional. Allow players to bargain for the best terms. Remember that this isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Intelligent monsters should weigh the risk of trying to get everything against an easier win for a lesser reward. Not only does this allow the party to limit its losses of prized equipment and treasure, it allows the players to save a little face too.

6. Be prepared to explore the consequences of the choice to surrender. Let them feel the agony of defeat, and then tempt them with opportunities to escape, to regain their lost possessions, to rebuild their reputations, to seek retribution, to use their survival against all odds to rally the townsfolk, or even reach an understanding with the monsters as worthy adversaries. Revenge and redemption can be powerful motivators.

7. Remember that as DM, your goal should be to play the roles of the monsters, not to crush and humiliate the players. It may sometimes happen that characters are humiliated in-game, but the players should never be made to feel hopeless or ashamed of their performance.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Secret dice rolls

Sometimes you may not want a player to know right away (i.e. at the time the dice are rolled) whether or not a character's action is successful. Stealth and sneaking are obvious examples. Another I'm thinking of is for the prayers and rituals of my Devoted class for Goblins & Greatswords: I want to make the faith element of the class more than just a word, by keeping the rolls secret from the player until actual results are seen (or not seen.) Yet I also don't want to undermine confidence in the objectivity of my GMing.

Option 1: Roll the dice in a box dedicated to the purpose, and leave them until the players have seen the results in play, then reveal. The down side is that those particular dice are out of play for a while, so you'll need extras.

Option 2: Have a different player, whom you can trust to keep a secret, witness the dice roll. This would work best when the other players trust that player, too.

Option 3: For better or worse, we're not living in the 1980s any more, so we may as well make use of the technological advances of our age. Roll the dice in secret, but where the players can hear it, and then snap a picture of the dice with your phone. Have the players record the time and the purpose of the roll. When the time comes, show them the picture -- the time stamp will confirm its authenticity.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Goblins & Greatswords: A new look for the cleric

My much-delayed fantasy heartbreaker, Goblins & Greatswords, is finally picking up some steam, and has given me a new take on a fairly controversial class that's been with us almost as long as fantasy role-playing games have been a thing.

I've opted to call this reimagined class the Devoted (after waffling between that and Dedicated.) I'm trying to avoid using the class names from that other game, and neither "priest" nor "crusader" had the broader feel and connotations I was looking for. I'm not 100% happy with it, but unless I get a better idea, Devoted they shall remain.

Rather than casting spells as clerics traditionally have in D&D-like games, the Devoted can petition the higher powers for boons thought prayer and rituals. It's a bit more limited than wizardly spellcasting, but also a bit more open-ended. The basic mechanic is essentially identical to the reaction roll to determine monster and NPC actions toward the party -- I'm using my own 2d10 reaction table, of course.

Every Devoted can gain Faith Points for dutiful service, up to a maximum of two per level of experience. These are not acquired automatically upon gaining a level, but must be earned through deeds that advance the faith. These may include assisting those in need when it would be inconvenient for the character’s own goals, heroic acts at great risk of life or limb, or defeating an enemy of the faith; the GM will decide how many points each deed is worth. Points may also be lost for acting against the tenets of the character’s faith, but otherwise, a Devoted can always restore his or her maximum Faith Points through a night of rest and a morning of prayer.

When petitioning for divine aid, the player rolls 2d10, adds the character's adjustment for Presence (i.e. Charisma) and as many Faith Points as he cares to spend (announced before the roll is made, not after.) Other bonuses and penalties may apply e.g. for holy items used, the magnitude of the boon sought, and strength of the opposition. The cleric's Turn Undead ability is folded into this system, with a penalty based on the Hit Dice of the creatures to be banished. 

Roll (2d10 + modifiers)
Request denied; offended. No further requests considered until penance is done
Request ignored
Request granted
Request granted with pleasure; half of Faith Points returned

Possible prayers include:

Banishment: The equivalent of Turn Undead.

Guidance: Similar to the AD&D spell Augury; the player frames a question and if successful, receives an answer in the form of a sign or omen.

Healing: Not the same as instant magical healing, but rather to speed recovery. E.g. instead of curing a disease, the symptoms get better over a period of days.

Warding: Sort of like Protection From Evil (or undead, or lycanthropes, or what-have-you.)

Cleansing: For purification of food and drink, but also for purging spiritual foulness such as curses.

Blessing: Bolstering the character's or an ally's chances to succeed at some feat, or at least avoid harm in the attempt.

The exact descriptions and mechanics for these powers are still in development (i.e. bouncing around in my head) but I think, at least in principle, it's a feasible way to differentiate a faith-based class from its spellcasting counterparts.