Reactions to other player actions in D&D

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This seems to be a topic of controversy among the Role Playing community. That moment when a player declares their Character performs an action, and another member of the party does not like it, so says something like “I stop her doing that!” How exactly does that work? Can another character react fast enough to prevent an others action? How does the Dungeon Master handle it? We are going to look at this in depth in this article.

Well firstly lets look at what a reaction is. A reaction is an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event. We are specifically looking at issues arising from dealing with a physical action. To do this we are going to break this down into two categories. We have primary and secondary reactions. A primary reaction is when you react to something directly happening to you. A secondary reaction is when you react to something happening to someone else.

Lets look at a scenario that arose during a recent gaming session on Howreroll. Marlowe ( a Monk), had been tricked into fighting in a Gladiatorial Arena. She was contracted to fight three combats in the stead of another person who would most certainly not survive. In her third fight, her opponent (The champion of the Arena), informed her that he did not wish to fight her, but had been told that if he did not, they would kill his wife and child. Marlowe defeated him and then went to see the Judiciary over the Arena to have her freedom granted. Radovan, ( a cleric of St. Cuthbert) was with her. Believing the Judiciary responsible for the threat against her opponents family, Marlowe struck the man with her fist. Radovan cringed at this as striking a Noble was a serious offense in this area. So in this situation what could anyone have done?

Well lets look at both the Primary and Secondary aspects of this situation.

In the Primary reaction we are looking at the Judiciary. He is reacting directly to a quick action that is being performed upon him. In this situation several things come into play. Firstly lets look at WHO is performing the action. In this case it is a tenth level Monk, a skilled unarmed combatant with lightning fast reflexes. She knows how to throw a punch. She can strike swiftly, accurately and without telegraphing it. The person who is to react to this is Judiciary, a nobleman who has lead a soft and privileged life. So in this instance their is little likelihood that he has much chance of reacting at all. Now if he had been a skilled combatant he could have read the intent (possibly with a successful Sense Motive skill check) and been able to dodge, parry or slip the punch. he may have even been able to counter. Also there was no real emotional situation as Marlowe offered no threats, performed no posturing and threw the punch extremely unexpectedly. Again, If she had been verbally threatening him, and had been acting aggressively, he would have had some indication that a possible attack was coming.

To give some point of validity to this, I have been involved in the combat world on a professional level for most of my life, and in my twenties worked in close personal protection and worked the door of a few night clubs in England. If you are trained and aware you can read an attack and react to it! Even the untrained will have defense reflexes that will at least allow them to cover up or shy away from a strike. The term “sucker punch” is often used to describe an unprovoked or blind sided attack. Typically these connect because the intended target is unaware of the attackers intent.

The process on a physical level for reacting to a strike is as follows. Your eyes must acknowledge that their is a strike coming towards you. they then relay that message to your brain, which intern triggers your muscles to react and allow you to attempt to block or evade the strike. This all happens in a fraction of a second. Trained combatants have faster reaction times in these situations and therefore react quicker and are more able to respond in time. Untrained people are much less likely to react in time.

In the case of the Primary reaction, whether or not someone can react is based on many factors. In Dungeons and Dragons players verbalize what their intended actions are. For example, the player controlling the Monk (Marlowe), could have said to the other players and the Dungeon Master, “I am gonna slug this guy.” This informs everyone else at the game that her Monk is intent on performing an attack. She could have also said, “Marlowe says I am gonna slug this guy!” which would have indicated that her character vocalized her intent before performing the action. Again this offers different degrees of ability and chance to react. In any case the Primary reaction lies with the person she intends to strike. And as we just examined if he is skilled and aware, or even has reason to anticipate the possible action, their is every chance he can react in some way other than getting hit and laid out by the punch.

Now lets look at the Secondary reaction. In this case that action lies with Radovan. Our Cleric found himself in a situation where I feel sure he would have like to have prevented the actions of Marlowe if he had the opportunity. Did he have an opportunity to stop Marlowe? or was their realistically nothing he could do in this instance?

A secondary reaction is very different than a Primary reaction. Firstly it offers a much longer processing time before the reaction can take place. In the example we are using, assuming Radovan was close enough to Marlowe to intercept her (which he was), his mental processing would have gone as follows. He sees Marlowe begin to throw the punch. His eyes send that information to his brain. His brain then has to acknowledge that it wants to interact. The brain then sends the message to the muscles to move and Radovan can then react. The big issue here is the processing time for deciding that he wants to react. This is not an personal instinctual defensive reaction. It is a desired responsive reaction. It takes longer for these actions to be processed by the brain. In this case his only real chance of successfully reacting is if he has prior awareness that the attack is intended.

In this situation Radovan was also behind Marlowe, which means he had no chance to read her facial expression, and limited chance to read body language. If he had been looking at her face, a successful sense motive skill check could have lead him to realize she was becoming aggressive, and as such he could have rushed in to restrain or intercept Marlowe. In this case Marlowe gave no indication of her intent, she did not act or appear aggressive (until she actually struck), and being a skilled unarmed combatant, moved with lightning speed. It is clear that without the use of some kind of previously applied divination magic, there was no way for Radovan to react.

This is of course only one example, and it shows how the ability to perform a successful Primary or Secondary reaction is based on many factors.

In other situations a player may say something like “I stop him before he says that!” Again we are looking at a Secondary reaction and your chance to cut in, distract or even muffle the words before spoken require that you have adequate warning that they are about to say what they are going to say. A more correct method would be to acknowledge that in this situation a particular character is prone to acting in a certain way, and taking steps to prevent the character from being in a position to say the kind of things you would want to prevent. I often hear things like “Before he says that, or before he does that I….” In these cases a player often has no time in which to have even been aware of what the intended action was, so in many ways it can be meta gaming. That being said there are many situations where a player may have reason to expect an action and be justified in their attempt to intercept.

As you can see it is clearly not a cut and dry, can or can not subject.

The situation of Primary and Secondary reactions must apply to Non Player Characters too! As the Dungeon Master you also have to consider these things when deciding how your minions can react to the players actions. This can not be a one way street.

To conclude I will draw on a few situations from my past that I feel exemplify what we are discussing in a real world setting.

One evening I was picking up a friend from work, it was very late and I parked my vehicle and went to the front door of where he worked to wait on him. The front door was glass, and was set inside a small covered alcove with two steps leading up to it. I was standing on the first step and was leaning in to peer through the glass. my right leg was stretched out behind me as a counter balance as I leaned. Suddenly I felt my rear leg kicked and as I turned around two clearly drunk men were standing behind me, and one was about to lunge at me. Being drunk their actions were slow and easily interpreted. I wont go into the details of what followed, but lets just say I was able to anticipate and react to the situation and came to no ill harm.

Another time I witnessed two individuals get into a verbal altercation. One of the men had a friend standing next to him. As the situation became more heated, the man who was accompanied by a comrade suddenly attempted to throw a punch at his verbal sparring partner. His friend anticipated this move and grabbed him before he was able to truly let fly. he was able to do because the situation had slowly escalated and it was becoming probable that the action was about to happen. He was already prepared to react.

In the third and final anecdote I will share I witnessed a man walk into a bar, smile and say hi to a few friends, slowly walk over to a table and then promptly smack a gentleman in the mouth. I was a good twenty feet away so clearly their was nothing I could do but say What the FU*K! The man who was struck was sitting with three friends all of whom were in range to react but did not. Why? well because their was absolutely no warning that the fellow in question was about to attack. I am sure it was over some past indiscretion by the foul language and words that were exchanged as the other three men dove into action to separate the two involved in the altercation. While they did react, they were reacting AFTER the punch had been thrown and had connected. They were aware the situation was even going to arise prior too.

As a player, try to utilize circumstance and ask yourself if your character realistically can react based on what the CHARACTER is aware of and not you, the player are aware of. As A Dungeon Master evaluate the circumstances to determine if your players reaction is a valid and justifiable course of action, as well as remembering to consider all these factors where it applies to your minions. Happy Gaming.

 

 

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How to handle the non physical stats.

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So in almost every Role Playing Game you have statistics or ability scores. Those numbers that are used to measure how strong, smart, quick, good looking, wise, lucky, educated and so on your Character is. These statistics typically relate to influencing the chance of performing certain actions or skills during a game session. Now the physical stats like (in Dungeons and Dragons) Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, are easy to Role Play. Its not hard to describe how your character with a seventeen Constitution runs at a good pace for twenty miles, or how your character with a high Strength, busts open a door with his shoulder. The challenge comes when we deal with the mental stats like Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma (yes Charisma is partly a mental stat). This article is going to examine and address an age old problem in Role Playing games, and that is how does a person Role Play a character that is gifted or blessed in the mental department when the player himself is lacking.

Lets start by breaking down exactly what each of the three mental stats are and what they encompass.

Intelligence.

Intelligence in Dungeons and Dragons determines how well your character learns and reasons. It represents your characters ability to analyze information and the depth of complexity in which the character thinks.

Wisdom.

Wisdom determines your characters common sense, perception and intuition. It also relates to how much willpower your character has.

Charisma.

Charisma is a measure of your personality, personal magnetism, persuasiveness, leadership ability and physical attractiveness.

I will point out here that I personally believe that physical attractiveness should be a separate stat, but for this article that is neither here nor there.

In Dungeons and Dragons the typical range (before modifiers) of these Ability scores is between three and eighteen (the result of rolling three six sided dice). A three Intelligence for example is on par with an IQ of about 57, while an eighteen is about 143. A character with a three wisdom is largely oblivious to the world around him and just drifts through life, where as a character with an eighteen is extremely intuitive. In the case of Charisma, a three represents the social skills of a sponge and looks of that guy from the hills have eyes, while an eighteen represents someone with real personal magnetism, great personality and incredible good looks.

This is where my earlier point comes into play, I know some very good looking people with limited social skills, and some that look like they got hit with the ugly stick who have great personalities.

So where is the issue with this. The issue arises when a player is not particularly smart and he is playing a character that is highly Intelligent, what happens when the player can not see the answer to a solution, but believes his genius Wizard should be able too. Or someone who has limited tact and social skills is playing a Sorceress with very high Charisma, yet just does not have the skill set personally to bring that out in the Character. As the Dungeon Master do you test the Character or the Player? Do you allow the player to fall back on his Ability Scores and simply roll dice, and if so what happens to the Role Playing aspect?

Firstly in some cases the game mechanics do take care of this. For example, if you want to make a knowledge skill check, it pulls a modifier from your Intelligence ability score. Or in the case of Intimidate it will take the modifier from your Charisma ability score. Other times however the mechanics do not have a solution, and this is where the dice stop getting rolled and the Characters start getting Role Played.

Now you can (if you really want a mechanical and personality lacking game) roll for everything. Example. DUNGEON MASTER: “You see a strange looking mosaic on the floor. It appears that many of the tiles are not in the correct place. The door on the other side is firmly shut and has no handle!” PLAYER ONE:”I bet we have to solve the puzzle to open the door. OK Tom, your Wizard has a seventeen Intelligence, you solve the puzzle.” PLAYER TWO: “What Do I need to roll to solve the puzzle?” “The difficulty is a sixteen for this one.”

Of course the fun for all concerned is in the players actually solving the puzzle themselves, but what if they just can not solve it. What if they do not have the IQ that their characters have and make tough work of something that in theory their characters should have been able to solve easily. As a Dungeon Master where do you go at this point? Should you have created a puzzle or a situation on par with what the characters should be able to deal with, or should you have created it on par with what you believe your players could deal with?

Firstly I want to say that peoples opinions on this are going to vary, and there is no finite correct answer to this one. However there are several different options that you can use to deal with these situations, and the goal is to detail some of them and hopefully help you find the solution you feel happiest with.

My personal opinion (and that is all it is, so don’t get your Dungeon Master panties in a wad if you disagree) is we are playing a game, first and foremost. That implies that the PLAYERS are playing the game and not the characters. With this in mind my goal is always to “test” the players. I test their Role Playing skills as well as their mental talents with various situations, encounters and problems. I hate it when a player asks to use an ability roll to solve something that should be resolved through Role Playing and story telling. Sometimes however I over estimate my players and they get stumped. Now there is nothing worse than a game session where players just sit around and struggle to solve a problem. They get frustrated and bored, and often forget that while they detest the idea of toiling over a puzzle for thirty minutes, the situation their characters are in, feels very different to the character and they would be more motivated. Sooner or later this will happen to you and you will be faced with a dilemma. My usual approach to these situations is as follows.

Firstly when I create a puzzle or problem, I always make sure there is an out. It may not be an attractive one, but there always is one. For Example. I created a scenario during the Children of Drakhar campaign I ran on Howreroll. My party had a wealth of magical items at their finger tips, but had to solve a puzzle to get their greedy little hands on them. There was a one way portal out of the chamber, so they could leave at anytime. Now of course they did not want to leave, but they were able too. The key point here is they had an out. If I had made it to where they could not leave without solving the puzzle, I basically presented them with a solve it or die problem. You may be OK with that, but I never like to present players with no win situations. Alternatively you can present those kind of problems as a side room or encounter. Offer a reward if they solve it, but no detriment if they do not. Another option is to set an amount of experience points for the problem, and allow them to burn some of that EXP for hints. The hints get progressively stronger as the EXP goes down. Finally you CAN always allow them to roll against a Statistic, but inform them that there is no Experience point reward for solving it that way.Whichever method you use, you can still test the player first, and allow them to fall back on the characters ability scores as a last resort.

When it comes to social situations and the Role Playing of Charisma, it can be a bit more tricky. Some situations can be resolved by a dice roll such as a Diplomacy or Intimidation skill check, but even then its a ROLE PLAYING GAME PEOPLE so Role Play the situation! In the situations I like to let the Role Play happen first and then based on how well that went I apply my own modifiers. In 3.5 I may give a plus or minus to the skill roll based on how well they Role Played the interaction. In 5e I may give advantage or disadvantage. You still run into the issue of a player with poor social skills failing where his character with high Charisma should not have, but it is still a game so you have to allow the players to play and their performance in the game yields the consequences for their character. Another option, is to consider the characters Charisma ability score during the interaction, and be more lenient to a player who has a character with high Charisma. In other words, if they are talking to a Non Player Character, and what they said could be taken in more than one way, always let him take it the right way instead of the wrong way. Or visa versa if they have a low Charisma Score. This way the player still controls the interaction, but his characters ability scores still come into play.

I will wrap this up by repeating that I know this is a topic for contention, and is it right to test the player or the character? Well I think it is a choice of personal preference. I prefer to test the Player, for the reasons I stated above. This being said, I will not condemn  anyone that prefers the other route. What I do know from my decades running games, is that testing the players ALWAYS yields a much better Role Playing experience and a better story……………….

 

 

 

 

 

How to Deal with Broken spells

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If you have been running Dungeons and Dragons for any real length of time, I am sure you have encountered situations where a certain player seems to continually use or abuse a spell to either circumnavigate much of your efforts, or to somehow manipulate or alter the game play in such a way that it is having a negative impact on the game. This topic is going to help you address this issue, and give you several options and suggestions in how to combat broken spells, or how to prevent spells being abused.

Firstly lets look at what we are talking about when we say “broken spells”. These are spells that for one reason or another are overly powerful, or allow a player to somehow “cheat” the game. There are many spells that I consider broken in one way or another. This can be either due to their effects at their assigned spell level, the fact that they offer no saving throw, the overly long duration, the wording of the spell text and many more reasons.

One example of this in 3.5 Edition would be:

Rope Trick

Transmutation

Level: Sor/Wiz 2
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Target: One touched piece of rope from 5 ft. to 30 ft. long
Duration: 1 hour/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

When this spell is cast upon a piece of rope from 5 to 30 feet long, one end of the rope rises into the air until the whole rope hangs perpendicular to the ground, as if affixed at the upper end. The upper end is, in fact, fastened to an extradimensional space that is outside the multiverse of extradimensional spaces (“planes”). Creatures in the extradimensional space are hidden, beyond the reach of spells (including divinations), unless those spells work across planes. The space holds as many as eight creatures (of any size). Creatures in the space can pull the rope up into the space, making the rope “disappear.” In that case, the rope counts as one of the eight creatures that can fit in the space. The rope can support up to 16,000 pounds. A weight greater than that can pull the rope free.

Spells cannot be cast across the extradimensional interface, nor can area effects cross it. Those in the extradimensional space can see out of it as if a 3-foot by 5-foot window were centered on the rope. The window is present on the Material Plane, but it’s invisible, and even creatures that can see the window can’t see through it. Anything inside the extradimensional space drops out when the spell ends. The rope can be climbed by only one person at a time. The rope trick spell enables climbers to reach a normal place if they do not climb all the way to the extradimensional space.

Note: It is hazardous to create an extradimensional space within an existing extradimensional space or to take an extradimensional space into an existing one.

Material Component

Powdered corn extract and a twisted loop of parchment.

Why is this potentially Broken? well lets examine it for a moment.

Firstly it is a level 2 spell, which means players have access to it very early on. Secondly it allows up to eight creatures (or characters) to be almost untouchable. You can not locate people in a rope trick, short of a Discern location or gate spell, and by the time the players reach level eight, they have eight hours of totally safe sleep, and being all but impervious to random encounters, or being found. They can use it in a dungeon to continually rest between encounters and at such a low level this is just too powerful. It can also be abused in many other ways but you get the point.

An example in 5e would be Contagion.

This is a 5th-level spell that allows you to stun-lock any target (including a legendary monster) for three rounds minimum if you manage to hit it with a touch attack and do at least a point of damage each round. in contrast, power word: stun is an 8th-level spell that stuns a target and gives them a chance to save every round.

Now I am not going to go into a list of all the spells that I think are broken or why here (its for you to decide what you think are broken in your game), but I will focus on how to deal with them.

There are several approaches for this. The first one is to simply remove them from your game or self Nerf them. If you choose this option you should consult your players BEFORE play and explain to them what you have done and why. Never do this without informing them and explaining your reasoning (unless you want to create malcontent within your players). If you decide to Nerf a spell be sure to have the altered spell description on hand for the players so that they know exactly how you changed the spell and why. Weather it be a level increase, a duration reduction or the addition of a chance to save against the effects etc. Should you realize that a spell is broken or is being abused DURING game play, you should discuss it with your players at the end of the session and explain why you see a problem. Then you can alter it for the next session but will be doing so with the players understanding and awareness.

The second method is to restrict the spell from play or limit its availability. In other words, do not make it a spell that is easily acquired by a wizard, or make it a spell that a deity simply will not grant a player the ability to cast, unless under necessary circumstances. Alternatively if you use spell components, change the component or add one that is difficult to acquire and is expended upon casting. This method does not out right rob the players of the spell but limits its use.

The third method is what I call the “Bad DM method”. This is where a Dungeon Master tries to punish the players for using the spell. For example. Having the players attacked each time while in the extradimensional rope trick space, by extradimensional creatures.  While this could happen (once in a blue moon), its unlikely, and doing it will piss the players off and they will see it as a “dick move” on your part. Or lets say they are using Wind Walk to essentially get free and safe long distance travel, constantly bypassing content and are abusing the crap out of it. You could have them attacked by a very limited and rare type of monster that can actually attack gaseous form AND fly, AND keep up with it. Once again they will call BS and see it as you being a dick. And to be honest if you take this approach, you are!

In my experience (other than the third option) how you deal with it is less important than how you explain your alterations or restrictions to your players. Decent players will understand how and why you may feel that a certain spell needs to be changed, or have its effects limited. Some spells may be fine in one campaign, but not in another. You should also do this PRIOR to character creation, as some people may decide NOT to play a certain class if they are aware you are altering some of the spell choices or making changes to them.

My personal preference is to limit or Nerf a spell rather than remove it from the game. All of the spells can be handled in such a way that you can keep the general feel and effect of the spell, and yet give it some alterations to make it more balanced.

Some spells are not broken as such, but can be used in abusive ways. One example of this would be using a low level spell to render an adversary helpless so that you can perform a Coup de Grace. In these cases I will often point out to players that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. In other words If we are going to allow this to happen in game, it can happen TOO you as well as be performed by you.

Once again it is important to remember that it is not all about you. You need to be sure that your players understand and are on board with any changes you make. Remembering that you are there to serve the players and not the other way around is important here, but also remember that serving them does not mean giving them everything they want. Delivering them a great story and a fun game is your responsibility as a Dungeon Master, and sometimes to do that you have to make some changes for the good of the game…………..

 

 

Home Brewing and House Rules.

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One of the great aspects of any Role Playing Game System is that while the designers go to great lengths to create a wealth of material and game mechanics for us to use, none of it is set in stone. The forum posts I see where some Dungeon Master complains about this rule or that rule make me cringe, and the battle over which edition is best is just as agitating.

Before I go any further I want to make a point. While the mechanics are called “RULES” this term should be taken lightly and with a huge pinch of salt. I prefer not to even call them rules. The term “rule” implies that it is set in stone and must be followed or obeyed. This is far from the truth with any Role Playing Game system. Instead think of them as nothing more than game mechanics that are at your disposal to help facilitate the running of the game, and the telling of the story. Once you do this, you can see more clearly that any of these mechanics are open to change or modification by you the Game Master.

In truth any Game Master (with experience) worth his salt will have altered and modified the game mechanics to suit his own brand of story telling or game in some way. This article is going to address this and both give some advice and make some observations.

Each Game Master will (over time) develop his own style. This style will reflect how he runs the game, and the way in which he tells the story. The Game system that you use is the frame work on which your story will be built, and the mechanics are the tools you will use to create the outcome of events. This article applies to any Role Playing Game but for the sake of simplicity I will relate it to Dungeons and Dragons.

So lets look at Dungeons and Dragons as a game. It first come to light in January 1974 with a three booklet set. in 1977 it was divided into Basic and Advanced rules sets. In 1989 the second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was released, and brought with it many more options for players. In 2000 we saw the third edition come to light (under the new ownership of Wizards of the Coast), and shortly after (in 2003) was the revised three point five edition. Third edition changed much of the mechanical system that had for the most part remained fairly similar for the past twenty plus years. The year 2007 brought us fourth edition and almost simultaneously pathfinder (by Paizo publishing) which was a revised three point five rules set. Then the current release of fifth edition hit the shelves in 2014. Over the span of the games history it has gone through many changes. The current edition is a far distant cousin of the original game concept, and for those of us that have played through every edition that has ever existed, we can draw vast differences in not only how the game mechanics work, but in the overall feel of the game.

I am often asked “which edition is your favorite?” In truth I can not answer that. I have many fond memories of First edition and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I have a crazy amount of game hours with many groups of people sunk into running three point five, and I have had fun and new experiences with some younger players with fifth. My favorite edition changes based on who I am running the game for, and what kind of feel I want for the story. You see to me an edition is nothing more than a tool set to tell a story. Whichever edition I have to modify the least to get the feel I want to achieve is the edition I will use. I am not an edition puritan. I hear people give reasons why they prefer fifth edition over three point five, or why pathfinder is superior. Each to their own, but I do not view mechanics the same way as many. I borrow “rules” from various editions and discard others. I change and modify things to suit my style and the situation.

As mentioned in an article you can find here, I run a game differently for a virtual tabletop than I do a physical one. Regardless of who I am running the game for, or what base edition I am using for my tool set, one thing is certain. Its Home brewed.

The term Home Brew is basically the more recent buzzword for what us old guard used to call house rules. That is to say it is our own custom rule set or mechanics that we use for our individual game. To Home Brew with any benefit can only be achieved with some experience behind you. I know some fledgling Dungeon Masters that refer to their Home Brew system and it makes me chuckle a little inside. They barely know the game or have a good grasp or understanding of the mechanics, so to be changing them already is kind of like a new chef trying to restructure a family recipe after one taste. It is not a requirement, or a status symbol to have your own set of Home Brewed mechanics.

Before you begin butchering and modifying years of work, you should truly understand it. Only then can you make changes to it that can infer any benefit. Changing rules or mechanics for the sake of it can only impose a negative result. Each time a Dungeon Master changes and modifies a rule he alters what his players have come to know and expect. If he is going to do this he should be able to explain why he wishes to do so, and convince the players that it is a change for the better. Back in the early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, you gained experience points for gaining gold and treasure. It was originally envisioned to reward the thief class, but it did not differentiate effectively. This was one of the first rules I remember changing. When I found myself limiting treasure, not to be stingy to the party in wealth terms, but because I did not want them gaining to many experience points to fast, I realized I did not care for this rule. I explained my thoughts to my players, and pointed out that if wealth was linked to experience, then every foppish young rich noble would be a level nine fighter. I also told them that I refrained from giving out wealth at times because I did not like the fact that it encouraged players to horde and hold back treasure and caused imbalances in experience. They understood and agreed and so we changed the rules. You see the rules change ultimately offered improvement to our idea of the game that we wanted, and as such was welcomed and mutually embraced by all. I often speak about trust. The players have to be able to trust their Dungeon Master, and if they feel he changes the rules without their knowledge or understanding it damages that trust. Also any change should be mutually applied to both players and Non Player Characters where applicable. IF for any reason this is not the case then the Dungeon Master should be able to explain (with justification) why.

I do not intend to discourage home brewing in anyway, in fact I encourage it, but I urge Dungeon Masters and Players alike to not do so until they have a clear understanding of the system mechanics as is. Sometimes when you alter a rule, you indirectly break others. You should realize the effects your changes will have on all aspects of the game, and not just the individual situation in which you applied them. For example creating and using a critical hit system can seem like a great idea, but how does it work with the improved critical feat, and does it then make that feat over powered? So now do you have to modify that rule? and alter the crit range of certain weapons? also if it is to be a mutually used rule are you prepared to have a goblin lop off the rangers right arm? Often there is more to consider than you may see at face value.

Beginning play with a set of home brew rules, is also easier than altering and changing as a game progresses. If you begin a certain way, its easily accepted but if you change it mid flow, you have to look at who it may hurt or hinder and how will they feel about it. Remembering my golden rule that you (the Dungeon Master) are there for the benefit of the players and not the other way around is paramount. You may not like a rule but do your players feel the same way? You should consider discussing it prior to coming up with changes or implementing anything. Players will be accepting of a rule change that they know is coming but will almost certainly rebel at one that is imposed upon them without prior knowledge. The game after all belongs to everyone at the table, and not just the Dungeon Master.

When you feel the need to alter a rule, firstly you should be able to identify why it needs altering. Knowing the reason then allows you to measure the impact of the rule on the game, and think of ways to better balance this impact. At this point, you should mention your thoughts about why a rule does not seem to work to your players and see if they agree. Once you have an idea for how the change will work you should then discuss it with your players and see how they feel about this solution, or if they have any input on a better way. Once the idea of change is agreed upon, and the method of change accepted, then you can implement it. Doing this will ensure acceptance of the change, and make sure you continue to have trust in your players.

Another observation is that many do not record the changes to a rule or what home brew rules they use. You should. Writing these changes down is important for a few reasons. For one it is good to have for your own records but it is also good to be able to show a player the rule (as written). I typically also write the date that I applied the change. This serves to show players that it has been in practice since that time, and not something I just came up with and threw at them. Writing things down also helps you to commit them to memory.

I have different sets of home brew mechanics. Some rules I use with my very experienced players, that I would not with newer ones. I also have some that I use for younger players (kids) that i do not use with adults. I do tent to let people know however when I am using a particular modification and again I always come prepared to explain why. I remember one case when I mentioned a home brew rule I wanted to use (that i had done so with many other groups) and it was met with resistance. That particular group did not like the idea of the rule, so after we had discussed it and everyone put fourth their thoughts, we collectively modified it. They understood why I had changed the particular rule, but not how I had changed it, so we collaborated to find a solution. By doing this I showed the players that I was fair and that I was there to run the game for their enjoyment. It developed trust. I know several Dungeon Masters that would not have changed the rule and some who would not have even told the players that it had been changed. To me that is the typical “the DM is god” mentality that piss poor Dungeon Masters seem to share.

In closing, I say Brew your proverbial asses off! However only do so where needed, and be sure that your players know about it, understand it and agree with it. No one likes a dictator………….

The art of war. Combat in Role Playing Games.

art-of-war

Combat is a thrilling  aspect of any Role Playing Game. Many players live for the thrill of the fight and enjoy it more than the actual Role Play itself. Rolling dice and seeing those desired numbers show face up, or landing those critical hits is exciting. Combat is however more than just rolling dice and having the numbers dictate the outcome. In this topic, we will look at how to make combat really come to life, and how to get the most out of those battle encounters.

We will begin by looking at designing a good combat encounter. Firstly we need to ask ourselves why will this encounter result in a combat? If it is a simple ambush, well then you already know the answer, but many encounters can result in combat where they perhaps did not need too. When I have an overzealous party that tends to hit first and ask questions later, or who has problems keeping their ego in check, I often deploy an encounter I like to refer to as a “swing encounter”. The Gorebad swing encounter is basically one that can go either way depending on the attitudes of the characters. For example I recently used a rather grumpy and agitated Weretiger to do just this. The characters had begun to bully their way through encounters, and had started developing egos that were eventually going to result in them biting of more than they could chew. I saw this eventuality looming so I decided to drop in this Lycanthrope. Now Weretigers are typically true neutral in alignment, so their actions are largely situational and are dictated by other outside social triggers. The characters met him in human form, and he was (for reasons that would become clear later) viewing the characters with suspicion and was a little stand offish. I had decided that he would either help or hinder them depending on how they interacted with him. A positive interaction would win them a potential ally, while a negative one would land them in a tough combat situation. I did this to illustrate to the players how sometimes you just have to know when to not push back and hold your tongue. The players chose wisely and avoided combat. If this had become a combat encounter however, I would have had a clear understanding of how and why the fight took place, and as such would have known how my Non Player Character or monster (in this case the Weretiger) should act. The combat would have taken place in a wooded area, one that my Weretiger would have been very familiar with and one that my players would not. This being said I would have used the monsters knowledge of the terrain to his advantage. Also depending on how the combat was going he may well have retreated and possibly came back at a more advantageous time. Determining the motivations behind the combat is important in being able to run it with substance. Are the players the aggressors or the victims? Is it on either sides home turf? Do the Non Player Characters have strong motivations to stand their ground, or may they break and flee? Are reinforcements close by? etc.

It is important to set the scene for the combat encounter also. Terrain and surroundings play an integral part in how a combat plays out. History tells us that three hundred Spartans held the narrow pass of Thermopylae for three days against tens of thousands. This was only achievable due to the location that the battle occurred. If they had met on an open battlefield it would have been a short and bloody massacre. Chapter ten of Sun Tzu’s the art of war discussed terrain and its effects on a battle. Indeed it enlightens us to how a battle can be won or lost based on where the battle takes place. This can and should be a factor in the combats in which your players find themselves in. Aspects such as height of terrain, difficulty of movement, items of cover, visibility and temperature all play a factor. Too many Dungeon Masters ignore this aspect of combat and allow combat to become a toe to toe turn based dice fest.

Not every combat has to start and end in one encounter. Indeed many good battles play out over several encounters. Recently on Howreroll the players took three separate encounters to take down one particular Necromancer. Making what could have been a simple end boss encounter, a chase that lasted a couple of weeks in game time. It also made for a much more climactic showdown when they finally did corner and ultimately defeat him. After the first battle both the characters and the Necromancer knew a little of the others tactics, so the dynamic changed the second and third time they fought. And again this change in dynamic altered the combat substantially. A good reoccurring villain can be a great source for great combat encounters in this way. Either he manages to evade capture time and time again or the players may keep slipping through his fingers if he is the pursuer, but each encounter has epic potential, especially if used with correct timing, and not over done.

The next thing we will look at is how to describe combat. Simply saying “you hit, you miss” is boring! I like to describe the combat step by step and blow by blow. Players love to hear the details of how the final blow dispatched their foe, or what the effect of a particular successful sword strike was. On our live Dungeons and Dragons show, I try to describe each and every hit, miss, crit and fumble. I keep the descriptions short, but I make sure they are imagined. My descriptions are dependent on the players actions and the outcome of the dice rolled. So for a narrow miss I may say something like, “you lunge with your long sword at the Orcs unprotected belly, but at the last minute he is able to bring his cleaver around and manages to narrowly deflect your blow to the side”. Or for a high damage hit that does over twenty five percent of the enemies hit points I may say, “your powerful overhead swing strikes the ogre and opens up a deep gash in his thigh. He glances at the open wound as the blood flows down his leg, and he takes a step back to reassess the situation. He no longer seems so eager to rush in”.

I recently had a private message from one self proclaimed “veteran Dungeon Master” (of ten years) who told me that I should not describe the players blows and I should let them do it themselves. I totally disagree and here is why. Hit points are relative to the creature. Hitting a goblin for six damage may be an almost fatal blow, where as to a hill giant it is little more than a scratch. The players do not know how many hit points a particular enemy has, especially in relation to enemies with a class, so they are not effectively able to accurately describe the outcome of any given hit. That being said I am all for and encourage a player to tell me and describe what he is TRYING to do, but the outcome of his action is mine to explain. I also like to improvise advantages and disadvantages that may occur to one side or another during combat. If the players make a particularly high damaging hit on a monster, I may have it back of, and hold its attack that round, as it rethinks its strategy. Or I may have a high damaging blow drop the target to one knee, robbing him of part of his move action the next round. While these things may not be part of the combat mechanic, they add something to the combat that makes it feel more real.

We just mentioned that we should encourage players to tell us what they are trying to do. I do not mean in them saying I attack the Troll, or I cast Magic Missile, no I mean describe how it is to happen. “I swing my broadsword with all my might at the Dire Boar” can be a descriptive way for a player to let you know he is using his power attack feat. Or a player who’s character is a bard may start singing an eighties power ballad and in doing so lets you know he is using his inspire courage ability. I like to encourage descriptive combat in my players also so I will often give bonuses or allow successful skill checks to infer combat bonuses. Here is an example of what I mean by that. A group of players are battling some pirates aboard a ship. One of them just finished of his adversary on the raised bridge of the ship and looks down and sees one of his comrades pressed by two cutlass wielding sea dogs. He knows if he runs down the stairs it will be two rounds before he can aid his friend so he asks “are there any ropes or anything I can use to swing down to the lower deck”. I like where this is going with this, so I tell him “YES, there is a rope within reach that is tied off on the rail behind you”. “OK” he replies, “I try to swing down on the rope and I want to try to slash at one of the pirates as I swing by”. In this situation I would have him make a skill check to swing down on the rope and a bad roll may land him in a compromising situation (or give him disadvantage in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons rules) where as a good roll may have a bonus effect (or give advantage). Never be afraid to reward creativity in your players when it comes to combat. They will be more inclined to be descriptive and really get into the fight if their actions can change the outcome and make it more exciting.

A prime example of some of this coming together can be seen here at minute 42.30. During this episode of the Marks of intrigue, a bar fight breaks out and all manner of improvised attacks and terrain come into play.

Finally lets look at mortality in combat. When two groups of people engage each other with weapons and magic, people have a tendency to die. While it is common for the monsters and some Non Player Characters to bite the dust, it is a much bigger deal and less common when it happens to a Player Character. With this in mind what is a Dungeon Master to do when he confronts the players with a fair challenge and due to their poor dice rolls and his good rolls the players are loosing to a band of goblins that they should easily be able to defeat. Well this really comes down to your individual style of Dungeon Mastering. many Dungeon Masters will tell you that they will modify a few of their own dice rolls (behind the Dungeon Masters screen), to balance this. Others will tell you that they do not baby their players, and the dice can be a cruel mistress to all equally at times and it is down to the players to retreat from a fight that is going badly for them (assuming they have the option). I have my own views on this and they alter a little depending on who I am playing with. With a die hard experienced group of players, sometimes I roll openly and let the dice fall as they may regardless. Other times I may fudge a roll here or their to be lenient to a newer group of players. Regardless I always allow dice to fall where they may during epic encounters or if the players put themselves in harms way through stupidity, despite fair warning. To me it comes down to trust. The players must trust you as their Dungeon Master to be fair and treat them with consistency and equality. As long as you achieve this I am not going to berate you for your choices. My goal is always to strive for open rolls but I also realize from time to time this can add to much of a random element to something that should be less so.

Combat is not the be all and end all of Role Playing, but it is a fun and integral part of any system. Taking steps to bring it to life and make it believable, is just as important as the work you put in to develop a viable world for your players to explore. There is so much more I could say about combat, but rather than lengthen this topic any farther I will just leave you with this.

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead”. ~Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

The differences between running a game at the physical table and online.

danddtablegame AND howrerollscreenshot

So as many of you by now know, I have been running Dungeons and Dragons and other Role Playing Games for over three decades. An unfathomable amount of hours of my life has been spent sitting around a table with a group of people, and bringing stories to life. More recently I began using virtual tabletops and playing the same games online. Since October 2014, I have also been broadcasting these games live on the internet on my channel Howreroll. Since then I have come to realize the vast differences in how I run a game between these two mediums. This article is aimed at explaining those differences and if you are a viewer of my online show it may explain a few things to you as well. Please note that there are even more differences to draw upon between private virtual tabletop games and live broadcasting virtual tabletop games. I will detail those where applicable also. My goal will be to break this down into sections and draw the comparisons as I do so. Here goes.

Story Preparation.

This is one area that is pretty much the same. I still do hours of work writing my stories and developing my plot lines, no matter if the table is physical or virtual so really no differences of note here. The one thing I will say is when I am writing for my online show I do think of it from a viewer perspective. For the show I try  not to make the story overly complicated and as such difficult for a new viewer to follow or pick up on. I also only display good quality visual maps and tiles (and  do not draw them on the fly, which is an option with most virtual tabletops), so I have to keep the adventures somewhat linear and when I allow them to become more open I have to create multiple maps to cover multiple eventualities. Which brings me to the next section.

Map Creation.

Huge differences here. When playing around a physical table I am afforded the luxury of total freedom. No matter what the players do I can improvise and create either a quick sketch or give a good verbal description of just about anything. Even though I would still draw out my dungeon or town layout, Its not needed to be visual to the players. If I want it to be visual or if we are using miniatures then I can use dungeon tiles and lay them out as we go. For the virtual table top I am confined a good bit in this regard. Now again while hand drawing the maps as you go is an option, for me it is not because we are producing a high quality show and as such it needs to look good and I am by no means a virtual artist. Because of this I have to manually digitally create each map. Every Inn, shop, village, forest encounter etc has to be created and made visual. This takes many hours of work. A typical live show takes ten to sixteen hours of behind the scenes work for a three hour broadcast, and most of this is tile and map creation. Of course, not all live shows go to these lengths, and many just show a world map and live cameras but for the quality of show I want to produce, that is not an option.

Dungeon Master style.

In some ways it is the same but in others it is very different. Either way I am a voice actor. Each and every Non Player Character that I bring to life will have his and her own voice and mannerisms. I role play these out regardless of it being a physical or virtual tabletop. The big difference is that around the physical table I am incredibly animated. I leap around, I rarely stay seated and I can put more physical aspects into my role playing. Instead of just describing a sword swing ill act it as well! online and at the virtual tabletop, I am stuck inside a little pip box on a screen, and confined to the field of view of a web cam so I am limited to minor hand movements and facial expressions only. Another difference is in the way I describe a scene or area. Around the physical table unless I have a hand out ready to show the players I have to leave much to their imagination, and have to be careful to make sure that I verbal describe important details. For the virtual tabletop I have the luxury of producing nice graphical images, tiles and maps, so less verbal description is needed, and all the players (and viewers for the live show) can see the same thing.

Player Interaction.

Some minor differences here. Around a physical table the players can take ques from the Dungeon Master and other players to know when it is their turn to speak etc. Online it is a little harder and especially when we are playing on the live show, we have to be careful not to talk over one another. Also as the players are not in the same room (and in Howrerolls case not even the same state or country), they all have different personal distractions that have to be overcome. The cat, the neighbors dog, the climate etc. While this may not be something you would at first consider, it makes a difference when it comes to interacting and the level of distractions that can be present.

Player character decisions.

For the most part again there is not a huge difference, but in a couple of areas it is substantial. Around the physical tabletop, if your character is currently not involved in the situation at hand you can get up and go to the fridge etc and still hear the Dungeon Master and be aware of what is happening. For virtual tabletop play you use a microphone and either a headset or ear buds, because if you have the sound coming through your speakers you get sound reverberations. Because of this if you leave the Virtual table you are typically cut off from play and anything that is happening. This issue is amplified for the live broadcast show. The other big aspect which again is vastly amplified when we are live is what happens when a character goes of on his own and does not stick with the party. well apart from the obvious possible dangers for the character in game, how it affects the other players is different. Again around the physical table you can occupy yourself a little if your character is not involved in the action. When playing at the virtual table, you are pretty much stuck staring at a screen and just listening. Because of this I try to discourage players from taking their characters off on their own to often, and only when it is a necessary action.

Player Meta game control.

This within itself is kind of an odd subject as you can never really stop a player from trying to meta game, only deal and react to it. Good players will not meta game or at least will not do so frequently, where as poorer players will meta game their asses off. What I refer to here is what I can see with my own two eyes. Around the physical tabletop, I can see if a player reaches for the Monster Manual or pulls out his smartphone to google what weakness a monster may have. At the virtual tabletop I can not. If a player goes online and looks something up I can not stop him, or even know he has done it. Online I have to rely on the integrity of my players to not meta game or use player knowledge where their character would in fact be oblivious. Players can also chat privately using chat programs and discuss strategy in private. At the physical tabletop i do not permit players to pass private notes unless I know the reason and content of said note. ALL in game chat should be done by the characters, and if the characters want to discuss something it should be done in real time and in front of the Dungeon Master. Private text chatting allows for discussion to be had in a non realistic way, alter the game play and, can fudge the time mechanics of the game. here is an example. John (who plays Ragnar the barbarian) privately messages Sandra (who plays Salindra the cleric) and tells her to cast hold person on the chief when it is her action. In reality the characters are in the heat of battle and Ragnar would have to shout this suggestion to Salindra. In doing so the chief would be forewarned. make no mistake this IS metagaming.

Session length.

Typically you can play way longer around a physical table than you can a virtual one. Staring at a monitor causes some people to feel tired, causes eye strain or even causes headaches. We take scheduled breaks while we play on line to help alleviate some of this, but even then a longtime at the computer is more draining than sitting at a real world table. Due to this, we tend to play shorter sessions. Howreroll runs for three hours each session we play.

Dice rolling.

The only thing to note here is one of the fun aspects of any table top game is the physical act of rolling the dice. Feeling that polyhedral dice roll around in your hand and then drop to the table to come up a natural 20 is a good feeling. At the virtual table this is taken away from you and replaced with a mouse click or typing a command like /r 1D20. Now as the Dungeon Master at the virtual table,  I use the fact that the players can only see head and upper torso as my Dungeon Masters Screen, so I still get to roll physical dice. However the players do not of course as it is necessary for the Dungeon Master to see the dice rolls they make.

A pointer I can make here for anyone using a virtual tabletop, as the Dungeon Master you can still create the anticipation of the physical dice roll by hamming up the need for a good roll, or being a little more descriptive about the potential outcome of the action. This is something we have achieved very well on our live show, and as such have found a way to recreate that feeling of tension you get when you actually roll the dice.

Game Mechanics use and game flow.

Around the physical tabletop, you all have access to the same resources and books. A bunch of players can share a players handbook for example. When playing at the virtual tabletop, you are on your own. You have to have your own resources. Some virtual tabletops include game systems (for a price) but if not you need your own books or pdfs. Another consideration that really only applies to live broadcasting Dungeons and Dragons is keeping the game flowing. We have an audience when we play on Howreroll so I sometimes simplify game mechanics and as such have a set of home brew or house rules that I apply. I also make certain other concessions in the interest of live entertainment.

Viewer interactions.

So this one ONLY applies to running the game over a virtual tabletop and making it live for viewing. Howreroll has an amazing community that chat to us and each other via a text interface while they watch our show. All the players and myself can see the flowing sea of text and as such it is hard sometimes not to be distracted. A particular pet peeve is when a player gets distracted or the tone of the chat changes the mood or attitude of the player during a key moment. A comedic comment or two can have a player laughing when the mood should be tense and anxious. We are all human and all of us (me included) fall foul to it all the time, but it is something you do not have to contend with around a physical table or even a private virtual table. Fortunately most of our regular viewers know we can’t really interact during game play, and that we do a Questions And Answer session during each break and at the end of each show.

I am sure if I spent more time I would come up with more differences and if I do I will edit the post to include them.

If you are thinking of starting playing virtually, then these are some of the things you will realize and find a little different. Also if you are a viewer of our show maybe this gives you insight into why we do somethings the way we do……..

Are they rules or guidelines?

Dnd_v3_5_rulesbooks

One of the many questions I get asked frequently is “What edition of D and D do you prefer, and what rules set do you like the most?” In truth I do not have a favorite edition, although most of my best memories came from AD&D and 2nd edition.

To answer this question, the first thing I want to point out and remind every Dungeon Master and player alike is that while the Dungeon Masters guide and Players handbook are full of “rules”, they shouldn’t be taken as being set in stone, or adhered too regardless of circumstance. One of the first things a Dungeon Master needs to understand is when to break or modify any rule he or she is presented with in one of the daunting manuals that our beloved game presents us with. I don’t know any “good” DM that has not converted, created their own Home brew variants or darn right ignored many of the “rules” that come with each and every edition. One of the things I am quoted as saying is “these are not a set of rules, more a set of game mechanics that you use to tell the story you want to tell and play the game you want to play“. I learned long ago that the enjoyment of playing for both DM and players alike is derived by a good flowing game and a great story, and not by arguing over rule semantics. In fact just about all of my bad gaming memories are a result of players stressing over or arguing about rules.

I tend to take certain types of mechanics as I find them, such as spell durations, weapon damage etc etc but tend to attack and modify any rule that I feel either offers a high chance of being abused, or feels just plain wrong. Due to this, which edition I tend to run or choose is dependent on the story I want to tell in my campaign.  I make my choices based on a few factors.

  1. Are my players familiar with it or are they new players?
  2. What style of campaign is it? (fast paced action, intrigue, political etc).
  3. Which editions rules set do I need to modify the least to fit the campaign story?
  4. Do I own the materials I need or will I need to purchase something new?

For example. Currently on Howreroll we are playing 3.5ed Home Brewed. When we started the players were all fairly new to D and D so I wanted a system that was fairly easy to learn quickly, and get to grips with, so that rules out AD&D and 2nd edition in my mind (#THAC0). I wanted to run an intriguing and tension rich campaign and not a hack and slash, so while 5th would be easier for them to pick up, I would have been modifying the rules a fair bit, especially the healing and rest mechanics, so I passed on 5th. 4th edition was just not well received by me (not getting into the reasons whys here) so that left 3rd or 3.5 edition. Now without starting the debate of well you could still run that type of game with 5th etc etc, and I agree I could, I didn’t want too as 3.5 was easier for me to modify for my campaign.

I have so many house rules or home brew variants for each edition its scary, and I have some that I alter based on the campaign world or story. I take the well written manuals that come with each edition and read them cover to cover, and then I tend to ponder individual rules and ask myself how I see that playing out in my campaigns. I look at aspects such as the magic system and decide if it fits and if not, I justify to myself, why not?

One campaign I ran was set in a world where magic was rare and difficult to obtain and to use. In this campaign I was stringent on material components being used for every spell cast, and I imposed a rule that linked spell casting directly to constitution, to demonstrate the drain on the casters physical state. Each time a spell was cast your constitution was drained a number of points equal to half the spell level rounded up. A constitution point was regained per hour naturally or for every fifteen minutes of meditation. This lead to a totally different use of magic in the campaign by the players and the NPCs, and a very healthy respect for spell use and timing. I also modified several of the spells to better fit this type of system.

To me any “rule” has always been nothing more than a game mechanic to use or modify as you see fit.

The simple answer to the originally posed question is “I have no favorite edition and to me there are no rules, only guidelines.