I may be a good DM, but I’m not the greatest player.
I may be a good DM, but I’m not the greatest player.
As I work through the second Zelda campaign (as opposed to the Second Zelda campaign, where the party has to figure out which princess is a robot), I’m finding some of my storytelling challenges are different from my normal campaigns. Yes, there’s the issue of running inside somebody else’s universe, but at least I get to play with things much more than I would in, say, Faerun. And I do have to keep in mind that I’m running things like a hybrid of a tabletop game and a video game, but I’m actually enjoying that. No, the biggest change I’m finding is that I’m planning for a much longer-term story than normal.
I have the most experience with thirteen-session campaigns, and I have something of a formula for how to plan, run, panic, and revamp in equal measures. But for campaigns that run much longer the pacing doesn’t work that way. I can’t just stretch the intro out to four sessions, then stretch realizing the campaign problem to five, and so on. I have to look at the whole plot, each arc, and each session in the context of something with a definable end that’s still a long way off. So how do I do that in a way that doesn’t bore my players?
This isn’t the first long campaign I’ve run. The Unnamed Monster Campaign was thirty-six sessions over a year and a half, and the Great Tower of Oldechi was 108 sessions in just under three years (both show the perils of running campaigns in a college town). Thirty-odd sessions and ten months deep into the Zelda campaign I’ve found myself following these general principles:
There are a lot of ways to go about this. In this campaign the party knew within the first few weeks that they had to beat eleven dungeons (because an NPC told them, but also because they know how many Heart Pieces are in the campaign and they are capable of simple math). Every time they find a dungeon, find an item or solve a puzzle in a dungeon, or beat a dungeon, they are certain they are making progress. Most campaigns aren’t as clear-cut as this, which means you have to get a little more clever in how the party knows they’re getting ever closer to the end of the campaign, even if a given step takes them some time. The point is to not let them sit in the doldrums for longer than necessary. Show them how getting the kingdom’s treasurer arrested leads to their goal instead of having it as just a thing that happened.
It’s easy to say “I’ll create a ton of mysterious people and creatures and items and backstory and so on, and the players will love figuring it out piece by piece! That’s years’ worth of content!” Well, yes, usually, but that means the players have to actually figure it out. A solution isn’t a solution if it doesn’t solve a problem. This is the “learning” counterpart to the above point’s “doing”; when a dozen mysteries fester for months the players are more likely to ignore them, forget them, or get angry at them (and you) than wait on the edge of their seats until you decide they deserve an answer. And speaking of which…
But you can’t decide everything about how the players are going to fight the orcs, or where, or when, or whether they try to skip straight to the orc leadership and find the cult right away. They need to be able to make their own decisions, and those decisions need to matter. Maybe they want to fight the orcs in the western mountains, before the scouts set up camps in good defensive positions, or perhaps in the east, where the farms are supplying the players’ army. And maybe they do want to head straight for the leadership, risking that the orcs will gain both the west and the east even if they lose their bosses. Give players the chance to make a decision and allow them to both benefit and suffer from its repercussions.
If you’re strapped for time and you can only plan for one of the party’s possible actions, there’s no shame in kindly asking yours players to get on the rails for a while. I’ve done this more than once in my career, and I have an adult enough group to allow it. If I say “Guys, my hours at work were long this week so I only had time to design the dungeon and none of the side quests,” my players say “alright, we’ll do the dungeon this week and come back to the side quests later.” No DM can plan for everything; the DMs who look like they do are just good enough at improvising to make it seem like planning. When something can’t be improvised into something else, it’s alright to be up front with the players and say you’re only prepared for a subset of their available choices. If they hate it you can work together in the future (for example, ending each session with “what are you doing next week?” has done wonders for me).
Sometimes the answer is to let a player abandon a character who isn’t working; in the post-Ragnarok campaign I had a lot more fun with Steingeirr, a spear-wielding mountain of a man who only knows thirty words, than Eyvindr, long-suffering straight man to the party’s excessively esoteric sneak/murderer. But they can change characters without a character change. Ask your players what they want their characters to do, what their goals are, and how they want to accomplish them. This is good advice for any campaign but you may find in a long campaign you need to do it more than once. You can’t give everybody an arc that progresses only sparingly until it comes to a head at the final boss because that means it can languish for months without progression. Give the characters challenges and ask them how they want to grow, then let them.
That said, don’t force a growth arc. Some players like having the same character for a few years, and some characters don’t led themselves to dramatic changes. Don’t try to fix something if it’s not broken, but if a player expresses an interest in a change work with them.
All of this is good advice for campaigns of (almost) any length. I’ve just found they’re more important in longer campaigns because the pacing, the story structure, and the payoffs are different. Unless your three-year campaign is actually a series of thirty unrelated one-month plots you need to pay more attention that usual to your players’ long-term interest level and adjust what you’re doing accordingly.
Of course there are two edges to this coin. As a DM you have to enjoy the campaign too, and I’ll discuss that next post.
* — In what I promise was not intentional cross-promotion, I Podcast Magic Missile just did an episode about exactly how ridiculous a plot like this sounds to your players after a long enough time.
The players in my 4E campaign are currently at L10 and a short side-quest away from L11, which means they’re eying paragon paths. We’ve been flipping through a few books to put together some decent candidates, some obvious (the archer is becoming a sharpshooter) and some less obvious (the farmer is becoming a tundra barbarian or something). One of these players came up to me at the beginning of a recent session and largely said “There’s no paragon path I really like, but there are three paths where I like parts of them. Can I take two things from each path to build a custom path with all the things I want?”
My first thought was “Of course you can’t. Why would you even think that? You can’t cherry-pick the most powerful or effective parts of every paragon path to build something better than any other player can have. The system is built this way for a reason, and you’ll have to deal with what’s available.”
Almost instantly thereafter, my second thought was “Of course you can. Why would you even think you couldn’t? Taking pieces of things and putting them together in a new and interesting way is exactly the kind of character-defining build we like. If the pre-built paths aren’t doing anything for you, you’re not stuck with things you don’t want or can’t use just because Wizards didn’t publish your character concept.”
I’m not surprised that my first thought was first and my second was second. After the years I spent running Delve Night, my knee-jerk reaction to somebody asking “can I do something weird?” is to rephrase it in my head as “can I do something broken but presented in a way you won’t recognize until it’s too late?” It’s something I’ve seen since before I started DMing (in the first session I played in my first campaign, no less), and it’s common enough that I had a sort of sorting system for it, where the later a question falls on the list* the more likely I am to say no before the speaker even finishes:
The problem is that the answer to all of these questions is yes, a player can certainly create his or her own content. I’ve just been burned more by players who do it for a numerical advantage than soothed by players who do it because it works for their character or, in a pie-in-the-sky dream, the other players and the campaign at large.
D&D has long encouraged DMs to create new content for players to use. The first DMing book I read, the 3.0E DMG, devoted a decent part of Chapter 6 to tweaking or creating races and classes, mostly by using the existing classes as a baseline and changing abilities from there. But it didn’t go into detail on working with players to make sure the new race or class is something they’d like, and I think that’s both a shame and a big reason DMs tend to be reluctant to accept player-created content. As with adventures the general implication is that DMs produce a game and players consume it. There’s a short essay in why that’s a bad way of looking at it.
The example I like far more is in the 4E DMG2. Chapter 1 contains a half-page sidebar from the author of the DMG1 discussing how his son decided on playing a fire archon because he loved the miniature. After some power tweaking and a dose of Law #3 he ended up with a character that “resembled the fire archon in all the ways that matter.” It remained balanced, it gained flavor, and both the player and the DM were happy. This is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be a sidebar in a supplemental book. It should be required reading for all DMs. Perhaps there should be a test, too.
A lot of this comes down to the designers. In early 3E, Wizards had the opinion that players were consumers who should leave producing to DMs. By mid-to-late 4E they changed their mind to the point where players and DMs can work together. We’re not at a game entirely run by players (and I don’t want us to get there in D&D, because it puts me out of a job) but we’re at a point with high player agency and investment. I don’t have a 5E DMG, and I probably won’t until I intend to run 5E, but I suspect we’ve regressed.
But that’s okay, because DMs are more powerful than game designers by every metric but profit. If the rules want us to design classes for players, we can do that. But we can also let players build what they want, whether it’s a custom race or a combination of paragon paths or even a flat-out new class (I have one player who’s done all three, all in different systems). In that case the DM’s role is to maintain game balance and story continuity, and not much else.
Right around the transition to paragon tier (coincidence?!) my players also stumbled upon some elemental enhancements that would give them new powers. My design space for these powers, which I’ve told to the players is roughly “Think of something mechanical you want more of, like range or damage, and something flavorful you want to do with the element you have. Let me worry about the balance, but I’m leaning toward very powerful effects with significant drawbacks.” The first such power uses an incredibly rare mechanic to produce a totally new ailment, and the player in question volunteered potential penalties the power could inflict on her. When the players are coming up with fresh ways to hurt themselves, they’re excited.
Almost universally, a group of players is smarter and more creative than one DM. There’s little reason to not leverage it.
* — Also on the list, but not relevant to this post, is “can I apply real-world rules to the following action in a way that gives me an advantage the game rules normally explicitly disallow?” such as dealing extra damage on a charge based on momentum or letting spells have deleterious effects on enemy equipment. I struggled with this for a while because I like both simulationist play and clever thinking but was afraid of what would happen if one player recognized this and started exploiting it (again, I’ve had more bad players than good). Now I’m at a happy medium; if I like it I say “yes”, and if I don’t like it I say “yes, but if you do then that sets a precedent, and as a DM I’m significantly better equipped to take advantage of changes like this than a player is.” That usually ends the discussion quickly.
I’ve been holding off on writing too much about D&D ZEXAL until I got a chance to play it. Rummaging through the books looking for theory is all well and good, but a gaming system is a system for gaming and you can’t make a valid assessment of it until you game with it. So after a far longer baking period than is strictly necessary I finally got into a short (four-session) local campaign. We played at 8th-level in a custom setting without any house rules, as far as I’m aware, and I got a chance to see how the system met my expectations based on what I’d heard and read.
Expectation: Monsters are dangerous. Since hit points scale with level but defenses don’t, enemies of all levels gain arbitrarily high damage capable of pancaking players. If they can get past a PC’s defenses, which isn’t necessarily easy, they can do bricks of damage that make it nearly impossible for a healer to keep pace.
Actual: Mostly no. We only had three or four fights in the campaign so it wasn’t always easy to tell, but it felt like monsters rarely swung for obscene amounts of damage. It did feel monsters teaming up on a PC could easy take him or her out and there was little if anything the rest of the party could do about it, which makes any tactical enemy group terrifying. We also saw the return of save-or-die effects, capable of knocking out a character in one hit. I’m not convinced they have any place in gaming whatsoever and I’m not happy to see them back.
Expectation: Magic items are powerful, but rare. They serve an in-game story element more than they improve characters.
Actual: Exactly correct. Everybody in the party received a magic item at the beginning of the campaign, but only one of them provided any sort of persistent numerical bonus, and even then only against specific enemies. Two of the items provided a bonus only when used by a person other than the person who had them, two had powers the players weren’t allowed to use until the DM allowed it, and one was only useful in the final battle (there’s some overlap there). They were neat and cinematic, but for ninety percent of the campaign they just sat in our inventory while we stared at them hopefully. When the system is based around treating magic items like deadbeat roommates, it’s not ideal.
Note that I don’t blame the DM for any of this, even though he gave us the items, intentionally withheld information about them, and placed unknowable limits on their function. From what I understand about the system this is exactly how 5E is supposed to work.
Expectation: Advancement has a much lower impact than in earlier editions. Players get class abilities and spells, but rarely do any numbers increase, and money barely exists as a gameplay concept.
Actual: Ug, this. We didn’t actually level, so I can’t say how I feel about leveling per se. But I can say I was a L8 cleric who could not afford holy water, because at no point in his or her pre-campaign career does a character scrounge up more than starting money. I rejected spell after spell every day because they had material components I couldn’t afford, making spellcasting another resource with scarcity determined by the DM. By the time I’d built my character I basically had a L1 cleric with a excess of hit points, spells, and languages. If I want my character to put years of effort into something and barely have anything to show for it, I’ll give him an office job.
Expectation: Character customization is greatly reduced. There are only three types of fighters, seven types of clerics, two types of druids, etc., and these types cannot be combined or adjusted in any meaningful way. Feats are optional and thus ignorable, allowing characters to define themselves solely by class. The system even strongly recommends you pick starting equipment from a class-based list with little variance for builds the designers did not expect.
Actual: Sort of. In terms of mechanics and backstories I felt incredibly constrained by the system. But my mechanical constraints were within the tolerance I afford to any Core rules, which are understandably limited by page count. The character constraints were also within tolerance; D&D 5E wants you to be a special hero who long ago gave up normal professions because being an all-around great guy is your vocation, but since that’s mostly what I want to play I’m not offended. Within the system limits I was able to design the character I wanted and one that fit the campaign. Reskinning didn’t hurt.
Expectation: Challenge Rating isn’t nearly the hard number it was before. Players can reasonably fight monsters with a wide level range.
Actual: This is probably the design decision about which I was most excited, and I’m happy to say it panned out. At a party of four L8 characters, we fought L5 monsters and felt like we were legitimately threatened. We also fought a L13 monster and, thanks to some lucky rolls and timely buffs, ruined it. Since accuracy and defenses aren’t level-based we could fight enemies from a broader range and worry more about their abilities and tactics than their hard numbers.
I’m both happy and disappointed to say playing 5E felt a lot like I thought it would, happy because I was right but disappointed because I wanted to be pleasantly surprised. Like 4E I doubt 5E will become my game of choice but it excels at a particular type of game feel, and now I have a better idea of what that feel is going in so I can prepare myself mentally. I could see going for 5E when I want to run something quieter, without the spectacle of 3E or Pathfinder, and it might even be the right system for the In Over Your Head campaign I’ve been tossing around for a few years. But I don’t see myself moving the Eight Arms setting to it any time soon.
By my own standards I’ve been a terrible DM lately. When my latest campaign began, I didn’t give my players the normal pre-campaign survey. I haven’t been asking players to build levels for me. I haven’t been designing all encounters via my normal pluses and minuses mechanic. But in my defense moblins don’t breath fire.
The reason I’ve been skimping on my normal process is because I’ve been running my second Legend of Zelda campaign. Set in an unexplored land just outside Hyrule, it tells the tale of travelers who ventured to the area and got caught up in reuniting a scattered arrangement of towns who used to trade and communicate through now-defunct teleportation portals. It’s been running in D&D 4E for about eight months with the same five players, and we’re currently somewhere in early-middle Act 2*.
Since I’m running the campaign in an existing setting, I’m limited in terms of what I can do. One of my goals is to make a Zelda campaign feel like Zelda, which means a focus on dungeons, items, and recognizable monsters. We’re not spending a month meddling in local politics because that’s not what Zelda is about. It’s about going underground, fighting some things, getting a new piece of gear, using that gear to fight a boss, getting distracted by side quests, getting underground in a new place, and repeating until a princess likes you.
So I didn’t use my campaign survey because of lot of the answers were obvious: focus on fighting over role-play, clear hero/villain demarcation, leaning but not heavily rural, and a PG rating (and we did discuss this during Session Zero). I don’t ask my players to describe rooms or monsters or characters live at the table because I have to have the puzzles, challenges, and progression flow in a certain way and there’s only so much variance in how tried-and-true monsters look and act. I don’t intend every encounter to build up some players and knock down others because I’m more interested in the monster design aspect than how those monsters make one player shine.
This isn’t to say I’m ignoring my methods completely. When I put together a monster I do note what makes certain characters succeed or fail against them, and I don’t (often) put together a fight filled with monsters that make a specific player unhappy. But my first priority is to make the monster fun, second to make them recognizable, third to make them fair, and only fourth to allow a member of the party to show off. (Besides, it’s 4E. They’re showing off plenty on their own.)
And this is the big difference I’m finding between monster design for this campaign and monster design for every other campaign: if the players don’t know what it is, I’ve done it wrong. For the most part I can’t say “this is a strange magical creature you’ve never seen before, so maybe it will sprout a third head”. Players have to be able to recognize that this an octorok, and it’s going to run around and spit rocks but not be terribly interesting in melee, while this is a beamos, and it’s wholly immobile but its defenses are high and its attacks are annoying. I’m not targeting the play experience as the only goal, or play experience and party balance as shared primary goals. There’s a new goal of resemblance, and it’s a fixed target with clear success/fail criteria.
This is a limit, but it’s a fun limit. To me, “design a L10 skirmisher” is an insurmountable challenge because it’s too vague. “Design a L10 skirmisher who teleports and uses a fire attack” is much better; I can stop focusing on all the ways a creature can be a skirmisher and zero in on making a flying teleporter interesting and scary. “Design a L10 version of a wizzrobe” is right up my alley. Integrating weak points is even more fun. If a monster is weak against arrows, I have to express that in a way that lets players recognize and exploit it.
I have allowed myself some creative liberties, with player permission. Video game monsters only have so many abilities as a limitation of the medium. For example, moblins are really, really boring. They’re basically orcs who sometimes charge and sometimes throw a spear. It’s up to me to come up with powers that give them options and challenge the players, like letting them charge a second time in the same turn once per encounter or gain bonuses when they fight adjacent to their allies.
And I have to mess with things further by the nature of running pen-and-paper. In a video game, you can kill a monster with one hit and killing fifty of those monsters is visceral and satisfying. In D&D, we call those “minions”, and fighting fifty is mostly a slog. I also can’t put a fight in every room of a dungeon. In a video game a player can end a fight in seconds and move on. At the table it takes longer than that just to roll initiative. But in general I’m focusing on making things feels like Zelda, which means some of my normal table tricks are taking a back seat.
One thing I am doing is non-binary DCs, and the players seem to like it. The biggest places this applies is in our monster knowledge rules. The normal system isn’t that great. The Monster Manual has a small section for each monster with DCs and a few sentences. If the players roll high enough they get to know, for example, that earth giants are brutish and live in mountains, and if they roll even higher they can learn that earth giants sometimes enslave dwarves who turn into galeb duhrs. None of this is helpful in fighting them, and when a player meets a giant in a canyon they probably already know that giant lives in that canyon. The exception is what’s interesting (“An earth giant? In my underwater bank vault?”), not the actual information.
So we use a different system. Players roll a knowledge check, and I apply that to a DC of the monster’s level. For every five points by which the player beat the DC, they get one of the following: the monster’s highest defense, lowest defense, role, resistances, vulnerabilities, or signature power. So far the winner has been signature power, and the loser has been highest defense (hint: it’s usually AC), but beyond that the players get to decide what information they have based on what they need.
I’m trying to work in more skill challenges using the “choose X of Y” system, and so far it’s really fun. At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough interesting options (there’s a reason Apocalypse World and similar systems tend to give a hard-coded list for any given action), but if I repeated myself too often nobody called me on it. And since Link usually solves skill challenges via button-skill minigames or hiding from guards I don’t have a problem with this particular break from the source material. I’m sure it will all go south at some point, but it hasn’t yet.
Besides that I’ve largely been ignoring my own advice for session building, and for that I apologize to my players. I may have been able to give you a better campaign than I have been if I’d done things as I normally do. But I might not. Perhaps this is good, in that it’s letting me try new things and walk away with the bits I like. So in that sense I also apologize that I’m using you as guinea pigs. Well, more than normal.
I’m not going into the specifics of adapting Zelda monsters into 4E because that strikes me as an incredibly boring read. I can’t imagine many people care why my peahat is level 4 (though, if you must know, it’s because the players were L4 when they reached the forest dungeon) or how many different ways I found to phrase flyby attack. Maybe when the whole thing is done I’ll just post my Monster Manual. Then I can play in someone else’s Zelda campaign with the least Zelda-esque character I can think of. My current players have set that bar pretty high.
* — In case you missed it in the middle of other posts, I try real hard to make my campaigns follow a three-act structure. I’ve come to label them “Act 1: What Color Is the Carpet?”, where the players learn about the setting and central conflict, “Act 2: Uh-oh! The Enemy Have Started to Move!”, where the antagonists take action, and “Act 3: One and Fifteen”, where the players fight back. Going over the names is a blog post unto itself.
In preparation for playing in my first 5E campaign I’ve come across something of a quandary concerning my character sheet.
I’ve been using my own character sheets for years, designed in Excel (or OpenOffice). It lets me present the information I think is relevant in the way I think is simple rather than going strictly by the designers’ opinions. I’m sure there are characters who used the official 3.5E character sheet just fine, but generally I don’t need to track five types of attacks, or record three movement modes, or use a “Wounds/Current HP” box big enough to tally every instance of damage I take in a campaign. The basic sheets generally spend too much time on too little, and vice versa, for me to use them. I’d rather only have room for five attacks if I’m using five, and if I’m using one attack I can spend that leftover space on recording my feats or secret identities.
A custom sheet doesn’t just let me move things around to fit each character, it also lets me update numbers automatically. I never forget to increase my attack bonus if that cell is already tied to my level, Strength modifier, and weapon enhancement. If I have a computer handy I can even change a “temporary modifier” field and watch all my skills change in keeping with that cat’s grace I have today. And I’m never beholden to my own handwriting; if I find I’m running low on room on a line, I can change the font instead of writing the whole thing over. The setup for creating a sheet is well worth the time saved later, especially when you’re creating fifty or so characters on a deadline.
So I didn’t think twice about trying to create a character sheet for 5E. The layout was fairly easy. I copied the default sheet fairly closely, expecting I’d move things around as I got more familiar with the system and saw where I needed and didn’t need space. I ended up with a lot of blank room because 5E wants you to write down things like bonds, traits, and other information that doesn’t work into an equation, which meant a lot of room to play with layout. Once I got something I was fairly happy with, I started getting into the minutia of what would go in what specific cell.
That’s where I hit a wall. See, skills in 5E work differently from in 3E or 4E because in 5E they don’t exist. There’s no such thing as a skill check. There’s only an ability check to use a skill. A “Perception check” is meaningless because 5E only has “Wisdom (Perception) checks”. That is, in earlier editions you would “make a Perception check, which is whatever you have for Perception plus or minus your Wisdom modifier”. Now you “make a Wisdom check and add (or subtract, presumably) whatever you would for Perception”. It’s a subtle difference but incredibly meaningful, and not just because it pulls the focus to ability scores as the key mechanic and reduces the number of modifiers on your sheet.
5E skills are based around the idea that the skills modify abilities, not the other way around. This means we can apply skills to different ability scores. A Dexterity (Perception) check is a valid, if weird, interpretation of the rules. A more clear example is Constitution (Athletics), which covers swimming across an ocean, while the more common Strength (Athletics) covers swimming across a running river. Dexterity (Stealth) is hiding, but Intelligence (Stealth) is telling other people how to hide. It expands the breadth of each skill and allows for more creative interpretations of what it means to be good at stealth, or jumping, or medicine.
But how do I represent that on a sheet? Say I have “Athletics”, and room for a modifier next to that. Do I put my full bonus, including Strength? That means whenever the DM calls for a different ability score with Athletics, I have to to take my modifier, look at Strength, subtract it, look at the other ability score, and add it. I’m checking three places on the sheet and performing two mental operations before factoring in a die. That’s more work than an ostensibly simple character sheet could be, and it’s a lot to think about for a new player.
So do I just put my modifier and add the ability score later? Most skill modifiers are the character’s proficiency bonus and nothing else. Occasionally characters will add twice their proficiency bonus to something or perhaps add a value from a feat, but that’s fairly rare. This means all of my modifiers are either +0 (I’m not proficient in it) or +2 (I am, and also I’m 3rd-level). I don’t need to dedicate one of the densest sections of my character sheet just to say “+2″ over and over again.
So do I just have a binary box, like “class skill” in 3E or “trained” in 4E? Then I can’t keep track of those rare cases where I do have extra modifiers. Also, I have to look at my skill, see if I’m trained, look at my proficiency, get a number, look at the ability score, add another number, and the factor in a die. We’re skill looking in three places and we’ve barely saved ourselves any steps.
I think it’s a great idea to let skills leverage different ability scores. It’s something I’ve used before (the above examples are from my own sessions) and I’m glad it’s in the rules so I don’t dumbfound my players by asking for an ability-skill combination they’ve never heard of. But it’s an at-the-table tool, not an on-the-sheet tool. I haven’t found an elegant way to represent it, which means my custom sheet is stuck in limbo until I figure out what works best for me. And I know what works best for me may not work for any other player, so I can’t target “universal utility” any more. It’s a pretty inconsequential gripe, like being upset that your new monitor is so large and clear you can’t use any of your old desktop wallpapers. But it’s a gripe nonetheless.
At least whatever I put out will be better than that official character sheet with the circle in it. Pretty as it is, what’s the point of a 5E sheet with room for six magic items but no space at all for bonds? Who’s the target player here?
I got an interesting comment on my recent post In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: What Measure is an 18?, and I think it merits discussion before we change topics:
Out of curiosity, I wonder what your opinion of the ability score themselves is. I haven’t had an opportunity to explore the versions before 3e either, but lately I’ve been considering how the ability scores are implemented…they allow for some interaction in the game (ability score damage, partial upgrades), but since almost everything depends on the modifier couldn’t the scores themselves be removed entirely?
I see two questions here: how do we use ability scores (rather than modifiers)? And, can we switch over to modifiers entirely? For the most complete answer I’m capable of providing, we have to do it for 3E (and by extension Pathfinder), 4E and 5E.
From what I can remember we use ability scores in the following ways:
Ability score damage. In 3E monsters can deal damage directly to ability scores. This is why “what happens when you’re at Strength 0″ is relevant, because there’s a chance a wraith could whittle you down to immobility. 4E doesn’t have such a thing, and I’m not aware of a monster that does it in 5E. Ability damage is one of the reasons I like using software (or at least a character sheet in Excel) to handle 3E and Pathfinder campaigns, because properly-built software can detect a change in an ability score and change all the relevant numbers.
Can we use modifiers? Probably. All we need to do is halve a monster’s ability score damage, and we can use modifiers with no problem. Decreasing a modifier of +3 by 1d2 is no different from decreasing a score of 16 by 1d4. The only difference is for odd numbers. A character with Strength 13 who takes 1d4 Strength damage loses an average of 1 Strength modifier (because there’s only a 1/4 change of rolling a 4 and dropping to a 9 [-1 modifier], and a 1/4 change of rolling a 1 and dropping to a 12 [+1]) instead of 1.5, the average of 1d2. I have actually seen characters who put an extra point into certain scores as an ability damage buffer.*
Spellcasting levels. In 3E a caster needs an ability score equal to 10 + spell level to cast a given spell. A sorcerer with Charisma 18 can cast 8th-level spells, but not 9th. 4E doesn’t have spells levels and 5e has them but ability scores aren’t particularly relevant to casting.
Can we use modifiers? Yes. We can easily say “you need a modifier of 10 + half spell level to cast a spell”.
Feat prerequisites. Every edition has feats, and every edition uses odd ability stores as prerequisites. As I understand it this is explicitly to make off ability scores matter more. A fighter with Strength 12 hits just as often for just as much damage as a fighter with Strength 13, but the latter can get Power Attack and the former can’t. Odd ability scores unlock certain additional abilities that mean the increase to an odd number is mandatory for certain builds.
Can we use modifiers? Yes. If we don’t have odd ability scores, we don’t need a mechanic specifically designed to allow them. Just use the modifier (if you’re feeling generous) or the modifier plus one (if you’re not) instead.
Bits and bobs. This covers narrow cases like carrying capacity, rounds a character can hold their breath, etc. They’re not really a big deal but they need to be said.
Can we use modifiers? Yes. The only thing we need to change is the reference. For example, for carrying capacity in 3E, remove the odd-numbered lines form the carrying capacity table. In 4E and 5E, create a table or equation that relates modifiers to weight (+1 is 120 pounds, +2 is 140 pounds, etc.) For holding breath, just say “You can hold your breath for ten rounds plus two rounds minus your Constitution modifier”. It’s a little more math but it’s nothing complicated.
Point buy. 3E and 5E have options for allocating stats at character creation, and 4E assumes you’re using point buy and only suggests rolling as a tertiary option. With point buy odd ability scores are worth more than even scores, but not as much as even scores are worth more than odd. For example, it may only cost one point to raise your 12 to a 13, but two points to go o a 14, then two to a 15, three to a 16, etc.
Can we use modifiers? Yes, but. We can remove the point buy options for odd scores and only use the values for even scores, connecting them to modifieds. This may create some weirdness in point allocation because of how the scores are balanced. In Pathfinder, only two even scores requires an odd number of points, 14 (five) and 18 (seventeen). So if your point buy is using an odd number of points, you must have at least one 14 or 18 (or you discard points at the end, which means you’re not as powerful as you could be, which means the party’s stats may not be even, which discards one of the primary reasons for using point buy at all). We’re taking a system designed for choice, removing some of that choice, and hoping players are willing to do the arithmetic calisthenics they need to make everything work with additional restrictions.
Partial upgrades. Some epic destinies in 4E and prestige classes (and monster classes, I suppose) in 3E give a +2 bonus to an ability score. Every other permanent bonus to an ability score is a +1.
Can we use modifiers? Not so much. There are two ways we can go about this. One is to track the half-increases in some other way. Perhaps we allow a half-modifier, so a character’s Strength is actually +1.5, or we track whether an ability score is “primed” so we know a future increase will change the modifier. But that’s exactly what ability scores do. We’ve eliminated a mechanic just to put in back in place in a way the rules don’t like. So that’s out.
The other option is to change how we do ability score increases, sometimes drastically. Increases like those from magic tomes have an obvious solution: disallow the odd options. The increases from leveling are rougher. 3E gives +1 bonus to an ability score at every fourth level. We can change that to a +1 bonus to the modifier every eight levels, so players lose a potential score increase, or every six levels, so they gain one instead. 5E’s ability score increases change by class, so we may have to tweak each class individually. Maybe fighters gain an ability modifier increase every four levels, and they can instead gain two feats, though providing this sort of sudden benefit changes the pacing of the game. It also means characters who gain an odd number of ability score increases must have a feat whether they want one or not, and we need to either hard-code the level where they gain a feat or trust players to figure it out themselves. In general, any rule that includes “also, remember how you leveled six months ago” is a bad rule. A character sheet should work without permanent memory.
4E is an even bigger problem. It gives a +1 bonus to two scores at levels that end in 4 or 8 and a +1 bonus to all scores at levels that end in a 1 except level 1 (it’s so easy!). We can’t just say “Gain a +1 modifier instead” because that breaks the tightly-constrained ability score rules. And we can’t say “increase one modifier by +1, which cannot be the same modifier you increased four levels ago” because of the same memory problem as before.
We can change it to “add +1 to two ability modifiers at levels that end in 6″. Compressing the L11 and L21 increase doesn’t work the same way because the tier transitions need that very intentional change. We could say “add +1 to three ability modifiers at levels that end in 1″ as long as we’re fine with players putting those increases into the same stats both times, because that’s how players work. There’s not a huge difference between a maximum ability score of 30 and a score of 32, so long as we’re fine with going outside the 4E barriers.
So, can we remove ability scores and use modifiers exclusively? Sure. But we’ve skipped the first question we should ask whenever we’re thinking of house-ruling something: why?
What do we get from removing ability scores and using modifiers exclusively? We save some room on character sheets. We more easily define 10 (now +0) as the baseline with other values above or below it.
What do we lose? We now have a drastically higher cognitive load for any place the rules use ability scores. We have to consider our custom damage changes, custom lookup tables, custom equations, and custom feat and leveling mechanics, none of which the rules mention in any way. It’s fine for players who can do that on the fly but a pain for players for whom the rules are too ingrained or new players who have to deal with house rules before they can get used to the rules in the first place. Even the room we save on character sheets is wasted unless we design our own sheets that use that space for something else.
We can pitch ability scores without breaking D&D wide open. But should we? I’m not convinced. If you’re trying to get into D&D from Apocalypse World or something similar go right ahead, but it’s not for everyone.
* — I’m going to preemptively defend this sort of player. Yes, having an odd ability score as an ability damage buffer is a type of metagaming. But it’s also a way of defining a character. As in, “Rock Hardslab is so strong! He can even take a hit from a wraith and barrel on, unharmed, where lesser action heroes might falter!” I could have a whole other post someday on how selling something the right way can be the difference between rejection and applause.
Last post I responded to some of the comments on D&D Stats in Simple Language with “we’re both right”. Things don’t translate perfectly from one edition to another, and the stats simply won’t work if they’re applied to earlier or later editions with different caps on ability scores. There’s no point in fighting about it, and anybody is free to use or not use them as they see fit.
The other sort of disagreement in the comments however, is this: Charisma covers social graces exclusively. And this one I will fight.
Ability scores work on a sliding scale of effectiveness. The definition of a score doesn’t change as you slide up and down this scale; Constitution measures toughness at all levels, not toughness when it’s low and pastry-making skill when it’s high. Look at what a person can do when the following ability scores are 20, 12, 4, and 0, respectively:
(Again, we’re using 3E definitions, because I’m nothing if not consistent [blog updates notwithstanding].)
Strength — 20: lift 400 pounds; 12: lift 130 pounds; 4: lift 40 pounds; 0: lift no pounds, including yourself, so you can’t move.
Dexterity — 20: move quickly enough to walk a 2-inch-wide platform; 12: move quickly enough to sometimes steal from an average person; 4: move slowly enough to often fail at tumbling; 0: move not at all.
Intelligence — 20: smart enough to recognize a magical effect; 12: smart enough to know how to look for something you’ve lost; 4: not smart enough to copy something from a piece of paper; 0: not smart enough to have cognitive thought.
Charisma — 20: people tend to like you; 12: people sometimes like you; 4: people usually don’t like you; 0: you’re in a coma.
That escalated quickly.
So why do we jump so quickly from “burps a lot” to “factually can’t interact with the world”? Because the above definitions are wrong. Charisma is not a measure of likability, it’s a measure of personality. From the SRD:
Charisma measures a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness. This ability represents actual strength of personality, not merely how one is perceived by others in a social setting.
What’s not in that list is “social graces”. The original, chapter-one, welcome-to-D&D description of Charisma in 3E has nothing to do with politeness. In fact, the definition of Charisma goes out of its way to say it’s not about functioning in society. 4E has a similar definition. 5E mentions that Charisma includes “eloquence” and leaves it at that. Why so many DMs and players have decided to change the definition of Charisma to apply mostly, if not solely, to manners, I don’t know.
Charisma is a measure of confidence, inner strength, and the acknowledgement of others as separate entities. That’s why high Charisma works with skills like Diplomacy, Bluff, Handle Animal, and Perform. A character with good Charisma knows what people want to hear and gives it to them, acts like others expect, and does it with an aura of natural grace rather than a sycophantic or practiced air. This means acting properly when meeting nobles, yes. But it also means adhering to the unspoken rules anywhere on the social spectrum. A low-Charisma nobleman might be perfectly at home at court and even handsome, but doesn’t understand that he should act differently in different situations because he doesn’t think of others as different from him and doesn’t know how to think for himself, so he thinks they should appreciate the same things in the same way he’s been told he should, and anybody who doesn’t is unfathomable, stupid, or less than human.
With this definition the scale suddenly makes sense:
Charisma — 20: people tend to like you because you’re a likable, assured person who’s fun to be around; 12: people sometimes like you because your personality sometimes shines through, even if you’re not always the talk of the town; 4: people usually don’t like you because you’re self-centered, unpleasant, or outright boring; 0: you’re catatonic, because you’re so incapable of interacting with the world you can’t even see objects as different from yourself.
By the way, that last one is very nearly a quote from the Monster Manual, another Core source that talks about the definition of Charisma without saying a word about manners.
I too was originally taught that low Charisma meant bad manners and high Charisma means good manners without being taught why, so when I started reading the books and understanding what Charisma really was it seriously changed parts of the game. Oozes and skeletons don’t have Charisma 1 because they care little for manners or conversation; they have Charisma 1 because they’re barely creatures, only acknowledging other things in the categories of “things to fear”, “things to use”, and “things to eat/fight”. Similarly stupid creatures like vermin can have Charisma 7 or higher and build societies or work in hierarchies. Powerful dragons and outsiders don’t have high Charisma because they’re gorgeous or lie like a rug; their Charisma represents the incredible self of self they have as one of the most powerful creatures in the universe. Half-orcs aren’t just inherently rude; they have a genetic predisposition to seeing others differently, getting caught in their own heads, and reducing the world to simpler concepts they can understand.
If we had to reduce Charisma to a single word, instead of “interaction” the word we want is “empathy”. Aasimars have a Charisma bonus because they want to listen and understand others (and it helps that the world constantly tells them they’re the good guys, heroes, descended from angels.) Tieflings have a penalty because they don’t care about others (and again, it helps that the world despises, isolates, and hunts them.) Dwarves have a penalty because they don’t care about other races, as they’re too busy with their own ideals and traditions to consider anything that differs from them. In Pathfinders halflings have a bonus because even though they have as many customs and traditions as dwarves they’re willing to understand other people so they can live in harmony. The more you apply this to PC races the more clear it becomes that D&D has kept this in mind even as players have forgotten it, and it makes the bonus/penalty landscape not only more clear but also a little more sad when it applies to races and monsters with penalties.
Classes work the same way. The fighter, the monk, the wizard, and other classes that typically dump Charisma lean toward the “I’m going to do the thing I do, and I don’t understand or don’t want to understand people who don’t do that thing” archetype, while the cleric, paladin, and sorcerer are more often “I’m going to find something in the world, be it suffering, evil, or the well-coded rules of magic, and fix it” characters. There’s a reason party leaders tend toward classes with high Charisma, and it’s not because those classes have Diplomacy as a class skill. It’s because they’re the ones best suited to working with the world because they’re willing and able to understand it.
So no, I have no intention of changing the Charisma descriptions to apply exclusively to relative rudeness levels, because that’s not what Charisma is. While social maneuvering can fall under Charisma, it’s not the sole or primary (or secondary, or tertiary) purpose of the ability score. Defining it like that not only does a disservice to the designers by reinterpreting one of the core tenets of D&D, it hurts any character laboring under that definition by reducing one of the few measurable aspects of their personality to “people who belch a lot are no good at lying, and vice versa.” I encourage all players inflicting this standard on their characters or the characters of others to reevaluate what Charisma means and see where it takes them, and I demand it of my own players.
Though I would love to understand what those players think this blog is about. I like to think of DMing with Charisma as “DMing to have fun, using personality, engagement, and giving players what they want, often extemporaneously”. Using the common definition, the blog instead becomes “DMing by starting with the fork on the outside and moving in, and you never talk about religion or politics”, and that sounds tremendously boring.
One of the neat bits about having a blog is that I post things that generate discussion. It’s one thing to say something in a group of similarly-minded DMs and have a talk before a session starts, but it’s quite another to put something out there and hear from people you’ve never met or even heard of. I love receiving comments, and since I’m not at a point where I have to worry about arguments or incivility the only ones I have to block are obvious bots (I could do a post just on the funnier ones; as great as it is to not have to deal with so many spam comments, recent filter updates have probably deprived me of some quality comedy.)
I also love data, particularly taking it apart and putting it back together in meaningful ways. When I noticed that one of my posts had an order of magnitude more spam than any other, I got to compare it to other posts to figure out why. I think it’s because I linked to Photobucket, and it’s why I don’t do that now. Another post received the most legitimate comments, mostly due to a heavy discussion between two DMs I know, and that showed me just how deep the conversation around the role of monsters in the world is. So it’s something I’ve come back to now and again.
But the post that has the most comments from unique users is D&D Stats in Simple Language, an attempt to put real-world descriptions on the numbers for the six ability scores. It’s also the post with the most comments disagreeing with the post itself. I’ve certainly had comments that amounted to “that’s great, but not how I play it”, and the fact that we can disagree on how to play D&D it one of the things that makes it such a worthwhile system. There’s not just one way to play it. But given the amount of comments the post received (and, to be honest, the lack of much else to discuss while I’m waiting to play in 5E), I think it’s reasonable to respond to some of them.
Most of the disagreements fall into two categories. I’ll discuss one here and one in my next post, and I’ll start with the easier one: The power level of high stats is too low. For example, the description for Strength 24 is “Pinnacle of brawn, able to out-lift several people”. A fair number of commenters think this is actually the description for Strength 18, because that’s the most a human can get. Anything beyond that is superhuman, limited to magical creatures or heroes far beyond the reach of low-to-mid-level play.
That makes sense depending on context, but the context of the post is 3rd Edition. When I first wrote these stats 4E hadn’t been released (it may not even have been announced), and I didn’t even get into gaming until after 3E had taken over. It was the only edition I’d played, and at the time it may have been the only system I’d played at all. I did say the stats aren’t intended for 4E but I didn’t explicitly exclude any other edition because I didn’t think I needed to, though there is only one game I know where character stats range from 1 to 25 based on the rules in a Player’s Handbook (and it has the 3E and Pathfinder tags but no tags for any other edition, but even I forgot about that until somebody pointed it out to me).
In 3E, Strength scores are very clearly defined. A medium-sized bipedal character (a human) with Strength 10 can lift 100 pounds over their head, heft 200 pounds, and push up to 500 pounds. These values quadruple for every additional ten points of Strength, with no limit on scores. 4E made things a bit cleaner by narrowing the range, as 4E is wont to do. A character multiplies their Strength score by ten to get their carrying load in pounds. Again, a Strength 10 human can lift 100 pounds, but at Strength 20 she can only lift 200. And in 5E, carrying capacity is Strength times fifteen but that’s distinct from lift load, which is twice as high.
(I would include examples from earlier editions, but again, I’ve never played them or seen them played. I don’t have the books to reference.)
To understand how this plays out in practice, let’s look at somebody with whom I’m sure all my readers are familiar, Hossein Rezazadeh. He has lifted, from the ground and over his head, 467 pounds. Assuming nobody used magic on him that means his Strength as a 3E character is about 21. But as a 4E character it’s 47, much higher than any character could ever have and even higher than Tiamat and other gargantuan deities. If you assume 4E’s carrying capacity rules are closer to 5E’s and define the snatch as actually heft load rather than overhead load, his Strength is 24. In 5E his Strength is only 16. We have three, perhaps four, Strength scores for the same person, and all we changed is the edition.
I’m picking on Strength because it’s the only ability score with a clear definition, but this applies across the board. Dexterity 16 means a somewhat quick rogue in 3E (because they’re faster than an average person, but pretty sluggish for a thief), an average low-to-mid-level monster in 4E (because ability scores scale with level, so higher values are common at high levels even for oozes), and an Olympic athlete in 5E (because the absolute forever maximum of human capacity is 20). Every stat varies by the expectations of the world and the players within it.
So I stand by my descriptions in a 3E frame of reference, but they can’t be applied the same way to other editions. They’re not intended for 4E or 1E or AD&D in the same way they’re not intended for Savage Worlds or Apocalypse World. It’s not a question of correct or incorrect as much as it’s a question of which version of the stats you prefer. If you’re using an earlier edition, feel free to kick out a few of the middle values (for example, removing “Visibly toned, throws small objects for long distances” and lowering everything above it by one) until the maximum is where you want.
Or, eschew them completely. Stats, high and low, can mean different things to different people. I’m a fan of interpreting low Dexterity not as “clumsy enough that he bungles into attacks rather than dodging them”, but “resigned to the idea that he’s going to take a bunch of hits, so he doesn’t try to dodge as much as he could.” Low Wisdom can mean you’re scatterbrained or you jump to conclusions or you interpret the world incorrectly or something else. It’s like compressing an image (for the younger readers) or albums of digitally remastered music (for the older readers): part of the problem with boiling the world down to something you can easily use is that you’re going to lose some of the intricacies you liked. The simple language stats are a starting points for players who don’t know what 14 Constitution means, not a canonical list. As long as it makes sense within the context of the game, go nuts.
But do make sure you have the context right. As I’ll discuss next post, when you interpret an ability score in a way for which it was never intended, things collapse.
I moved a bunch when I was younger. I didn’t pack up my life every six months and shuffle around the country, but I had a lot of opportunity to clean out my desk drawers. As annoying as it was, I’m something of a pack rat, so moving was a good excuse to make a frank assessment of what I did and did not think would be useful in the future.
Throughout all the moves, there’s one thing that I’ve kept for a startlingly long time because I always figured I would find a way to use it. At first it was because it was neat, didn’t take up a lot of space, and stood a strong chance of me coming back to it (unlike, say, the Star Wars VHS* tapes I had for at least two moves), but once I got into DMing I saw it as a prop I could use in a game. For years the opportunity never arose, and I went through campaign after campaign sitting on it and waiting for the right moment.
That moment finally came in the dungeon I most recently ran, when I hit my players with this:
It’s not that big a deal as a puzzle, I’ll admit. But it hits all of the points I have for a good puzzle (since the players got pieces one by one, they were expected to solve it as a group rather than tossing everything at a player and waiting for a solution to occur), it fits with the storyline, and most relevantly it shows that you can find a use for anything if you hang onto it long enough. But the older I get the more I see that sometimes “long enough” is a milestone on the far side of “too long”.
I’ve said before that I never delete a file. By the time I started DMing, disk space was cheap enough that I could store my session maps as bitmaps* without blinking an eye. All the files for my first campaign, compressed, are less than 500K, and even the Great Tower of Oldechi with all its monster and location art is only 100M. As long as most of my notes are digital there’s no compelling reason to delete any of it, so I’ve never considered which files I might never need again.
Far trickier judgments lie around the physical paraphernalia I use for sessions. I have a poster map of a previous campaign’s capital city in my closet, but no record of the elaborate maps I’ve made with borrowed foam terrain. I kept another map with the layout of Floor 19 but none of the physical objects represented on that layout. I have some, but not all, of the books I’ve acquired with various logic and thinking puzzles. And I have a plastic miniatures collection whose size dwarfs everything else on this list combined. How can I, or any DM, decide what’s worth keeping and what’s just taking up space?
There’s no exact formula for how long to hold onto a real-world gaming tool, but when I consider whether to keep something or throw it away, I weigh it by these categories:
Size: The smaller something is, the easier it is to hang onto it until you need it. A hundred character sheets fit in a three-ring binder for the next time you want a paper copy of them, but the custom minis for those characters are somewhat more daunting. For the same reason copies of a puzzle or map on paper or in a file are easier to justify keeping than a to-scale minotaur maze.
Reusability: The more ways you can use something, the more likely you’ll find a way to fit it into a session (this advice may sound familiar). Part of this is because you can attach stories to the same item over time, but it’s mostly for practical reasons. Something’s a lot easier to throw away if its usefulness is very definitely over. A set of cardboard, wooden, or plastic pieces you can assemble into a map and disassemble for storage are a better idea than the same items glued together into a permanent arrangement.
Emotion: This is a lot of the reason there’s no exact formula. We can weigh size on a scale from “house” to “keychain”, but there’s too much variability between “I spent two years making this structure as the set piece for the culmination of my magnum opus campaign” and…well, “keychain”. The more I feel an emotional connection to a prop, whether it’s because of the time I put into it, the fun I had using it, or its role as a persistent spectacle, the more I try to preserve it.
There are a bunch of props I’ve used that have not stood the test of time. The tangram puzzles for Floor 19 were fairly small, but doing another tangram puzzle seemed derivative and they didn’t get anybody excited, so I didn’t see a need to keep them. The jigsaw puzzle for the same floor fails at all three metrics. I used to keep old video game player’s guides and magazines for monster, plot, and map ideas, but their size vastly outweighed their usability, so once I was far enough removed from acquiring them for the emotion to tick down from “I spent forever getting these” to “you know, I haven’t gone through them in a while”, they were gone.
The aforementioned puzzle stacks up fairly well. It and its companions fit in a 7” x 7” x 1” box, which isn’t a huge investment but is pushing my limit for a short-term feelie*. I can give the same puzzle to players in a different campaign and they won’t remember the solution, so it’s reusable (and again, it has companions). And I can remember the exact moment I first got the puzzle some twenty years ago and how I’ve kept it from move to move over the years to break it out every so often. All told this is probably the sort of thing I’m more likely to lose in a lightning strike than throw away.
In fact, I’ll probably find a way to leverage it again this campaign. I think my players didn’t know until this exact moment that the shapes can do this:
So, you know, spoilers.
* — If you don’t understand this word, ask your parents.