Puzzles (Part 2, The Good)

So rather than griping more about what puzzles don’t work in D&D, this time let’s go over making puzzles that do. Last time I outlined four points that I feel make puzzles worthwhile:

Good puzzles challenge players, not characters.

“Challenge the players, not the characters” is something of a mantra around these parts. It refers to the distinction between a difficult encounter in-character versus a difficult encounter out-of-character. An enemy with astronomically high numbers and terrifying powers is a challenge, but one that normally relies on pure luck more than any effort or investment from the players (unless you expect your players to realize this early and flee, which is very rarely a safe assumption). Instead consider an enemy with tricksy powers, an environmental advantage, or a weakness that’s difficult but rewarding to exploit. This becomes more of an exercise for the players themselves, interacting with the enemy via their characters, and it gives their choices some weight that “I need to roll a 16″ doesn’t.

To give an example of how this relates to puzzling, consider a room full of lore that the party must translate and interpret to find some important artifact. This is an intellectual exercise for sure, and it seems like a break from running and jumping and fireballing. But if the translation is resolved by a Linguistics check and the interpretation by Religion, it’s no different from any other skill checks except that the bard is good at them. This isn’t a puzzle, it’s a trap where failure causes lost time or story stagnation instead of damage.

Instead give the players something to do. Write the document you want them to read in a text editor, then change the characters around via a substitution cipher. If you’re being fancy, change the muddled text to a fantasy font before printing it. Let the players do the translation instead of leaving it to a roll, and let them perform their own interpretation (and, if theirs is better than yours, steal it). Give them a chance to exercise their own minds instead of their characters’.

If this sounds like more work on your end than adjudicating a die roll, that’s part of designing a puzzle. And if this sounds like it will take more time at the table, good:

Good puzzles take time and/or effort to resolve.

Nobody’s satisfied by a combat that only takes five seconds unless the explicit point is that there’s a huge power gap or extreme luck involved. Similarly, nobody’s satisfied by a puzzle that they solve at a glance. A one-minute puzzle isn’t really part of a session for the same reason DMs don’t schedule a certain amount of time for Monty Python references.

Puzzles that take time but no effort are actually worse: they consume a valuable part of the play session, but there’s no engagement on the part of the players. It’s like fighting the same goblin encounter for the sixth time. Puzzles like this generally require taking rote actions over and over until a solution occurs; examples include a fifteen puzzle and the Tower of Hanoi. The first time a player sees them they’re interesting, but once you’ve solved one you’ve solved them all. The older your players are, the more you can assume they’ve already seen the puzzle and the more likely it is that at least one player has a solution or method memorized.

Most rote puzzles have some more interesting version that let players think instead. If you’re dead-set on having players push blocks around, consider a Sokoban or any of the innumerable sliding puzzles with blocks of multiple sizes like Klotski. Puzzles where the players build towers aren’t as common, but any sort of pentomino usually works.

Good puzzles have points where the players can feel they are making headway.

Players (read: humans) like knowing when they’re doing something wrong or right. If the wizards hits the robot with a lightning attack and it takes extra damage or shuts down for a round, it rewards the player for finding the robot’s weakness and encourages them to try it again. Equal and opposite, if the robot instead takes little damage or immediately responds with a lightning attack of its own, this discourages further lightning attacks but still rewards the players (if they survive) because they’ve learned about the monster. A party should know when their cause has an effect, even if it’s as simple as “I killed the orc, so now we only have to fight three instead of four”.

In a sense, I think this is actually part of the design aesthetic of 4E. Since my first campaign players have asked me “how damaged do I think the enemy is?”, something the rules don’t cover at all. We ended up deciding that a Spot check could give the players a rough idea, and good Spot checks gave more specific health information. In 4E players are allowed to know when a monster become bloodied and vice versa, and healing is more static and thus more predictable.

Puzzles are the same way. This is why mazes are much-reviled even though every DM tries them at least once—there’s no way to know whether a character is any closer to the exit and no sense of accomplishment until the very end. In games where puzzles can span more than one room, a lot of moon logic puzzles fall under this umbrella; the party knows they have the rooster key, but they have no idea whether that’s something they need to open the moon door or if they needs to explore the eastern wing of the dungeon first. The party could be tantalizingly close to the solution (shine light on the rooster key so it crows, turning the moon door into the sun door, which the key opens) but there’s no way of knowing it unless they’ve exhausted their other options. And if they shine light onto the rooster key in another room, they even don’t know which puzzle they’re solving.

If the players shouldn’t know exactly how close they are to a solution, they should be allowed to know that they’re getting closer. Sometimes this works by giving the players a map and letting them see the whole room at once, like the aforementioned Sokoban. When the players have five crates out of six on solution squares, they’re closer than when they only had two out of six. If a puzzle has multiple rounds, each success brings the players closer to a goal and may increase the difficulty to underscore the advancement. It’s about the ability to look back at the puzzle and say “at least we’ve done something” rather than “we’ve been here a half-hour and all we’ve determined is that orange is not green.”

Puzzles with progress also serve a secondary goal in that they make it much easier for you to give hints. A frustrated player has every right to point out that their wizard is very smart and should be able to figure out something about the puzzle. You can say something like “for a second you think you visualize a workable solution, and before your brain gets it muddled with every other possibility you latch onto the fact that this crate needs to be over here” without giving away the whole thing.

Good puzzles let everyone have fun.

Of course a puzzle lets players have fun. That’s why we’re here. The important word in this item is “everyone”. A puzzle is not good if it’s printed in small font on one sheet of paper. This means that one player actually works on it while everybody else strains their eyes trying to catch up. That’s swell if you’re dedicating the cleric to the document of religious lore while the rest of the party explores the room or talks to the ghost librarian, but lousy if it’s supposed to be a task for everybody.

This came into stark contract for me when a player complained about one of my puzzles. To me, it was a puzzle I really liked and one that the party solved after some significant effort. To her, it required a way of thinking that she couldn’t quite follow, so she wasn’t able to participate at all. It was like I’d paralyzed her for an entire combat, or left her to stew for an entire session in a hag’s larder while the rest of the party got to have adventures. A puzzle that only part of the party can solve is not a successful puzzle.

It’s why my puzzles rarely require small handheld props that only one player can manipulate at a time, and why they more often take place on our gaming screen or drawn large on the mat. One well-received puzzle from The Great Tower of Oldechi involved jumping over pits from one side of the room to the other. Though the party was all in one location, half of the players started solving the puzzle from the entrance and the other half started from the exit. When they met in the middle they knew they were onto something. It’s also why I tend to prepare two smaller puzzles rather than one big one, because it lets a player jump from one to another if they’re up against a wall. If the party knows they need to deduce the sequence of two locks before the door opens, it makes perfect sense that a character can cross the room and see what the other lock looks like.

Just as with combat, few puzzles survive contact with the players. There’s a chance that a player blows through the puzzle quickly, or that the party gets stuck early, or that one player you thought would love the puzzle came to the session very hung over. Usually if a puzzles only meets three of the above criteria I still consider it a partial success (but just in case, I try to prepare some variants of the puzzle with varying difficulty in case I need to change my plans—for every puzzle my players end up seeing, I have at least one they don’t).

Now we know what puzzles work and what puzzles don’t, at least theoretically. That still leaves the question of integrating them into the game. In the next post I’ll give some examples from my sessions, touch on reskinning stock puzzles to fit your session, and provide some links to my favorite puzzle sources.

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Puzzles (Part 1, The Bad)

Puzzles have a long, fine tradition in tabletop gaming, right up there with arguing about grappling rules and casual racism. Whether in the form of a simple question or a campaign-spanning myth arc, puzzles have worked their way into the milieu of both the game itself and the player’s view of it. Even years later my players (and, for one session in particular, casual observers around the table) fondly remember some of my better puzzles, and I recall with similar vividness the worst puzzles I’ve ever been asked to solve because that’s sort of my thing.

Unlike running a small business, haggling, relationships, or other tasks that one might assume fall under the rules only tangentially, the rules for D&D barely discuss puzzles at all. Rather, they provide only the most meager advice and trust the DM to come up with something that players will like. The most thorough treatment of puzzles comes in, of all places, Savage Species, but many DM-facing books touch very briefly on puzzles. Most of the time the books discuss how to deal with a situation where the players are stuck rather than how to build a puzzle that doesn’t get them stuck in the first place. Given this framework, it’s not surprising that a lot of tabletop puzzles are really, really bad.

I think the root of it is all the way back in The Hobbit et al. I haven’t read all eight-six books in the Tolkien canon, but even with my limited knowledge I’m aware of two situations where puzzles factor into the storyline. The following contains spoilers, in case you’re working your way through all the world’s literature chronologically and you’re still at King Lear.

The shorter one is when Frodo et al arrive at Moria and are faced with a sealed passage and the inscription “The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.” The solution is to interpret the instructions literally: when a person says “friend” in Dwarven, the door opens. This is a quick puzzle with a simple answer, one that was solvable because a member of the party spoke Dwarven and another member of the party made an appropriate leap of logic. Not a great puzzle for reasons I’ll discuss later, but not a huge problem.

The longer one is when Bilbo and Gollum enter into a contest of riddles, and this is where I think we start getting into trouble. “Riddles” hold a too-large place in the Venn diagram overlap between “puzzles” and “D&D” due in no small part to this exchange. On the surface a riddle looks sane: each puzzle is small enough to fit on a trading card, there’s a simple solution to each, there’s little or no cultural requirement, and there are no complicated steps, props, or descriptions necessary to understand or complete it. All it requires is a bit of roundabout thinking or the aforementioned leap of logic.

And therein squats the toad. A riddle assumes that your players can make a given leap, and generally they can. But DMs, and published adventures, rarely consider what happens if they don’t. If the players can’t figure out the monster’s puzzle, they can’t enter the dungeon, and the adventure stalls. If they can’t decipher the smarmy villain’s clues, they don’t know where he’ll strike next, and the adventure stalls. Good adventures come up with a contingency, allowing the players to progress if they accept that they don’t know the answer and accept some penalty, but many don’t.

Even then one of the upsides of puzzles becomes a downside. Unlike combat or other physical skills, a riddle doesn’t challenge the characters as much as it challenges the players. This is good until the players can’t solve it. Then it’s not about “Rogar wasn’t strong enough to lift the gate”, it’s about “you, the player, Hank, aren’t smart enough to figure out the riddle”. No matter how smart a player is, there are puzzles that will stump them, and the last thing a DM wants is for this game to become a referendum on the players’ lateral thinking skills.

“Aha!” shouts the DM who has read the rulebooks but not designed a puzzle, “I have a solution! If the player is stuck, have them roll an Intelligence check! A sufficiently smart character will be able to solve the riddle even of the player can’t, or at least to get a hint. Bow before my solution and weep!”*

And this works, for some groups, sort of. It does make sense in that a smart character may be able to solve puzzles their player can’t in the same way that I can’t double-jump. But it does make me wonder why I should bother with making (or, let’s be honest, stealing) a riddle in the first place if I’m going to treat it like everything else. Allowing a solution to come via skill check removes the point of giving the players a puzzle because it turns the puzzle into a character challenge instead of a player challenge. There’s no difference between “A pit! *clatter clatter* I jump over it.” and “A puzzle! *clatter clatter* I solve it.” besides giving the wizard something to do in between all their other skill checks. Even a hint doesn’t make a lot of sense for a riddle because a hint is a way of getting halfway to a solution. But a riddle is binary. There’s only one step between you and the answer and there’s almost no room for the partial success that a hint would provide. What player, after a decent but not smashing Intelligence roll, is comfortable with saying “I don’t know what the answer is and I have no evidence or experience to support my supposition, but I think it’s something you would find in a kitchen.”?

It’s far, far too easy to err on the other side as well. A quick, simple riddle seems like it’s fine on its face but tends to fall flat when presented to a group of thinking players. Riddles are a children’s joke for a reason. Giving easy riddles to a player doesn’t do much besides waste their time.

Ideal puzzles are a lot like ideal combats: they challenge players, they take some time and/or effort to resolve, they have points where the players can feel they are making headway instead of hurling themselves at a wall, and in the end everyone feels like they had fun. A very good riddle can satisfy as many as two of these points and most fail at even that. Regardless of what comparatively classic literature suggests, a D&D table is no place for riddles.

So what puzzles do work? We’ll cover that next time.

* — This is what I think other DMs sound like. It’s what I sound like.

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Law #5

It turns out that this is post #100. I didn’t realize this until I committed post #98, so I had to scramble a bit to not only come up with a topic worthy of a new significant digit but also with a post #99 that wouldn’t drown it out. So if you thought my last post was lackluster, it was all part of my plan. That’s the story I’m going with.

Luckily I have been working on an idea that’s worthy of a decimal escalation. Thus:

Law #5 – Every character must have the opportunity to be awesome.

(I go into this in more detail below, but I wanted to put an aside front and center: in this context, “awesome” is highly subjective. It doesn’t refer exclusively to Gurren Lagaan-esque feats of ridiculousness, but rather to “whatever make this character worth playing”.)

It’s a pretty logical follow-up to Law #0, enough that I thought it was too obvious to list explicitly. Players want their characters to be awesome, DMs want their characters to be awesome, it works out. But more and more I see characters who are awesome at the expense of somebody else and characters, my own included, who define awesomeness so narrowly that they never give themselves a chance.

The strategy for this is actually pretty simple. Figure out what you want to do with a character. Is there a mechanic you want to use? Is there a story goal you want to meet? Is there character development you want to see? Basically, why are you playing the character? (Hint: if your answer is “because we needed a healer and I lost a game of nosey-touchy”, start over.)

Now you have to make a decision: how much is everybody else at the table involved? The short answer is “more than you think”. If you want to play a master at smash-you-with-an-entire-building fu, make sure that nobody else at the table is doing the exact same thing; if two players have the same build or strategy, each is less unique and probably less impressive, and if one is better than the other you’re in trouble. If you want to play a wicked fire mage build, make sure the campaign isn’t set on the Elemental Plane of Fire and let the party’s melee fighters know you’ll probably try to melt them at one point or another. If you want to play a necromancer, make sure the party healer doesn’t function exclusively through area-effect burst spells.

It’s important to note that awesomeness doesn’t always happen via combat effectiveness. If you want a character with a redemption arc, ask the DM for some opportunities to show off your good side and make sure the rest of the party isn’t so opposed to your alignment that it causes unintentional, harmful party conflict. If you want a fall-from-grace arc, take the above and triple it.

It’s important to note that the DM is trying to create characters and make them awesome as well. Often the DM just has a slightly different metric for awesomeness than the players do (it is, after all, our job to lose to the party). To illustrate this, let me tell you a story.

In The Great Tower of Oldechi, the players found themselves in a prison and separated. It was a large prison, large enough for an entire story arc, and the prisoners were mostly epic-level. It stood to reason that the guards were even scarier, and they in turn whispered rumors of the power level of the warden on the top floor (the head of the prison, not the party’s defender, though she was pretty mighty too). Tell had that the warden could suppress a riot just by walking into the room, and since the party was starting a riot the guards had gotten to talking, wondering when the warden would decide the problem required his attention. One character (Cid Viscous, if you’re paying attention) slipped out a window and began scaling the prison from the outside to see exactly who this warden what and what he could do.

As Cid got close, I began making attacks against his Will defense from an unknown source. I told him the attack rolls, which started laughably low but got higher and higher the more he climbed. Eventually one hit him, and through a power or racial trait or something he barely managed to avoid knocked prone, which would have entailed an immediate drop to the ground via rules caveat. At that point Cid, with Wisdom primary and Intelligence secondary, realized that he was inside the warden’s aura. The closer he got to the warden, the more likely the attack would knock him down. This was a bad enough problem for one character dangling from a twenty-story building, but it was even worse with an entire party in melee.

(In truth the warden was scarier than that—in combat he had a 20-square aura of prone [save ends] and a 5-square aura of dominate [save ends]. In fact, this guy was sick with attacks that caused [save ends] effects. The scaling attack bonus was more of a narrative event than something I wanted to adjudicate live.)

So when the inevitable jailbreak occurred and the party was fleeing across the giant bridge leading to the main gate, I sent waves of enemies at the party, enemies who were shouting about how the warden was on his way and would surely stop the escapees without even trying. At the climactic moment he finally showed, sauntering up to a party prepared for a serious boss battle. Right before the warden could attack, Cid rolled (perhaps literally, he was a slime monster) up to him and made the biggest attack he had left. Cid’s weapon allowed him to teleport an enemy he critically hit, and he just happened to crit the warden. The warden failed his save against forced movement and Cid hurled him off the bridge into the lava. Cid turned back to the party, shouted “That won’t stop him!”, and the party booked it out of the prison and into the next zone.

I designed a boss battle to challenge the party, and he didn’t end up making more than two attacks, both from an aura and both against the party’s controller. Instead he was chucked over a cliff before his first turn and never appeared again. One might think I was disappointed or angry (Cid’s player did), but I couldn’t have been happier. The warden’s combat stats weren’t what made him awesome. It was the story construct of his aura and the fear it engendered in the prisoners and the party that made him awesome. In fact, being in combat might have lessened his awesomeness because then he would have been just another monster whose weakness is running out of blood. Since he blasted off like Team Rocket, the party’s fear of the warden continued and he got to retire as a monster that that party beat only by parking a steamroller on him and skedaddling. The warden did exactly what I wanted him to do: he had one defining characteristic, I used it exactly like I’d wanted, the players reacted exactly how I’d hoped, and they (well, Cid) in turn got to be awesome when it came to a head.

See, that’s the thing about awesomeness: it stacks. This is why the greatest heroes always have the greatest villains. If the villains aren’t powerful and smart and interesting and challenging, the PCs aren’t heroes. They’re just guys who come into conflict with other guys and resolve said conflict with mediocrity. Similarly, a villain who shuts down the party isn’t a test to overcome, it’s a chore that leaves everybody frustrated.

This is why I’m so against denialist DMs, who operate by restricting the awesomeness of the characters or players. Then the players don’t get to play the game or the characters they wanted, and nobody’s happy. It’s also why I don’t like it when characters outclass their allies, because then a character operates by restricting the awesomeness of other characters. Though I don’t have a link (because really, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?), I can’t stand characters built around making sure enemies can’t do anything. The too-powerful controller, the save-or-die-specialist, the invulnerable defender, the god-charming diplomat, any character with a tricksy build that removes enemies or challenges like brushing off lint works only because the player has decided that their own awesomeness can only occur by making sure no monster or villain or NPC gets a chance to top them. But this isn’t a zero-sum game. If your character is only awesome at the expense of other characters, you’re playing D&D wrong.

Not that this is intentional. I firmly believe that players don’t sit in a room with one swinging light bulb and say “I’m going to get my jollies by damaging the play experience of somebody within melee range of me”. I also believe that DMs worth their salt don’t sit up at night thinking about the best way to make sure his or her players feel all their actions and efforts are worthless. Instead what we have are players who look at the game, say “well, I’m having fun”, and consider their obligations met.

And that’s why I feel I need a new law. Law #0 is true and great and helpful, but it’s passive. Law #5 is an exhortation: each character must have their opportunity, and each player has a role in making sure that happens. Every character was built to contribute to the game, and any time you prevent that contribution, the game is worse for it.

With one caveat: this only really applies to named characters. If every kobold in every combat gets a moment in the sun, we’d be here all day. Sometimes “awesomeness” is defined by “dying en masse in a fiery blaze”.

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Running What You Know (or, All That Data Entry Finally Pays off)

I’ve never been sailing. I’ve only been on a boat once, twice if you count those two-person ducky boats you can paddle around the harbor. I don’t know port from starboard, preferring to use the directions “that way” and “no, the other way”. I know a thirty-foot boat is longer than a twenty-foot boat but I couldn’t tell you what that means for performance, crew, or price (besides, presumably, higher). Yet I just finished a campaign where the players spent three months on the high seas, ostensibly hunting monsters and committing as little piracy as reasonable.

Most DMs have to run something they don’t know at some point. I think I’ve only run games for two players who have crewed a boat, one who’s swung a sword, two who have ridden a horse, and three who have cast magic. I expect most DMs have similar ratios pending circumstance. (Games run at a naval base probably have a higher amount of boat experts and fewer horse experts. Same amount of magicians though.) But we know players are going to ask questions like “how much does my horse eat*?” and “why can’t I deal more damage swinging a sword vertically*?” We also know that we don’t know the answer, and the players know we’re making things up.

There’s a lot of good information out there about knowing what you don’t know lest you run headfirst into something you think you know that you really don’t. Leveraging the expertise of the players is a valid way to answer questions one DM can’t. I can ask the boater a question about boats, and his answer is just about guaranteed to be more detailed and accurate than mine. I can ask a historian, or a businessman, or a paramedic about things that happen at the table.

Indeed, my actual expertise is completely alien to tabletop gaming. I’ve worked in white-collar, service-oriented offices for my entire career. I work with numbers, text, and bureaucracy. I create, file, read, proofread, and disregard reports. I deal with angry customers, angry clients, angry colleagues, angry managers, and on very rare occasions people who are not angry but merely vexed. It’s decent practice for a numbers-oriented, parlance-heavy, people-management hobby like D&D but it’s not the sort of thing where I can leverage my expertise for the story. Nobody’s ever looked at me across the table and asked how stock prices work.

But very recently a player wrote a letter to a large company and received a very formal response. I wrote this response using generic business-speak, which I hoped would make it seen a little impersonal and distinct from the other letters the party had recently read. I did not expect that the players would treat it like the greatest show on ice.

See, none of my players work in the sort of industry or business I do. My players don’t spent their slow days reading fifty letters like that and writing ten or fifteen more. What to me was a form letter, the sort of thing I write a dozen or more times on my slowest days, was to the players a unique and effective tool for moving the plot forward and building the world around it. As irrelevant as I thought my proficiencies are to D&D, as soon as I leveraged them I saw how fresh it looked to everybody else.

Generally gaming groups are made of somewhat disparate people. Players have different occupations and different skill sets, all of which are interesting (or can be made interesting) to the others. Even among a group that all attends the same classes or works in the same office, the players have different families, hometowns, faiths, beliefs, and experiences. For every player who needs to know about boating skills and jargon, there’s another player who’s never worked on a million-dollar deal, a third who’s never been to an emergency room, and a fourth who doesn’t understand a thing about professional wrestling.

…Okay, pro wrestling may seem out of place in that list, but this applies to more than professions. For example, I like puzzles. Not just jigsaw puzzles, but logic and reasoning puzzles of nearly all kinds. I play puzzle games, I solve puzzles in papers and online, and I keep a book of puzzles on my desk in case I need to come up with something for a session in a hurry or club an intruder. I even watch televisions shows about solving puzzles, and finding those is no mean feat. Over the last few decades, I’ve amassed a respectable number of completed puzzles and I remember most of my favorites, at least in structure if not exactly.

Puzzles aren’t my job (usually) but they’re something I enjoy and I’ve sought out a lot of them. When it comes time for my players to challenge an ancient temple or an intelligent enemy, I have something on-hand that I can use in a session or reskin to a believable challenge. I’ve been known to use puzzles as a pacing mechanism, giving players a breather between fights or limiting the speed with which they burn through a dungeon. Since I’ve done so many puzzles of so many different types, I can just about guarantee that not only have my players not already solved a given puzzles, they’ve probably never heard of anything like it.

A connection between puzzles and D&D makes sense (not that you’d know it from reading the books…but that’s another post), but what about other hobbies? If you look hard enough, you can use your experience in just about anything to make your sessions better. Like movies or television? Imitate an obscure character to give a recurring NPC a little more realism and distinction. Like video games? Use some of your favorite levels, maps, or mechanics when you’re designing a dungeon. Like paintball? Hit your players with a coordinated team of snipers who outthink them at every turn. Like astronomy? Space is full of places and events that would give even epic-level PC pause, places and events that don’t require any magic and could be home to any number of beasts or civilizations. Name anything you like, some hobby or interested or activity, and you can find a way to use it to make session new and fresh to your players.

Every DM has some story, skill, or knowledge that his or her players don’t. The trick isn’t using that uniqueness in a game. DMs can do anything, so if you really want to get something out of your years as a newsroom intern or all that time you spent in Call of Duty you can find a way to make a plot revolve around it. The trick is in recognizing that it’s something worth doing in the first place.**

* — The answer to both of these questions is the same and is left as an exercise for the reader.

** – If you’ve read the comic and you’re confused about its relevance to what I’m saying, read the advice below the comic.

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Multi-Round Actions (Part 4, Tactical Feats)

I never felt like tactical feats really got the respect they deserve. I think the designers wanted to give characters neat tricks that meshed with their combat style while keeping them accessible enough that any character who wanted them could have them without rearranging the whole build or being forced into a weird prestige class. But I think players saw them as a too-long collection of mechanics, each of which was insufficiently interesting on their own and none of which were as good as a feat that simply increased a number somewhere. It’s a shame, because they’re really quite neat.

A tactical feat is a feat that allows a character follow a set of steps to gain some bonus. Often this is a bonus to whatever the character does at the end of the steps (Energy Gestalt, Complete Mage: cast a cold spell followed by a sonic spell for extra damage) or a new ability that normally isn’t allowed (Giantbane, Complete Warrior: if a big enemy attacks you while you’re taking a total defense, tumble to the far side of the enemy and stab them). The options given in tactical feats are vast, but each feat has a theme, like switching between spell and weapon attacks or fighting with allies in tight formation.

The options in tactical feats have to make sense as a series of actions, not just because it fits the theme of this article but because that’s the point. An example is one of the first tactical feats, Combat Brute, which allows a player to add an additional damage bonus from Power Attack as long as they charged in the previous round and accepted a high attack penalty. It represented a character who hurled himself at an enemy, weapon swinging wildly and throwing all caution to the wind. His attack and defenses were lowered, but if his attack connected the momentum would make it devastating. That’s a tactical feat in a nutshell: do a thing in one round that gives you a benefit next round in a way that makes narrative sense.

It’s worth noting the language in tactical feats. For one, they tend to refer to their actions as “maneuvers”. At the time the feats were published, maneuvers weren’t a thing in D&D. Now we have combat maneuvers (and, I suppose, the Book of Nine Swords, which we try not to talk about), so I had to invent some language. Also, tactical feats often talk about the “first round”, “second round”, etc. This is not the first round of a combat but the first round of the maneuver. The intent is to set up one action over a series of contiguous turns. If the player with Combat Brute above charged, then drank a potion in the next round and Power Attacked in the third, they’ve already lost all their momentum. The “first-second” language is necessary to keep the actions as adjacent as possible.

It’s probably easiest to understand with some examples. All of the feats here present three options, because doing things in threes is awesome, and a player with the feat gains access to all three options at will.

Maneuver Expert (Tactical)

Your skill in unexpected combat styles allows you to keep your opponents off-guard, manipulating the battlefield seemingly at will.
     Prerequisites: BAB +5, Combat Expertise, Power Attack.
     Benefit: The Maneuver Expert feat allows the use of three tactical maneuvers.
     Overbearing Momentum: To use this technique, you must successfully bull rush a creature in the first round. If you do, on the second round you gain a +2 bonus to Combat Maneuver rolls against that creature for each square you pushed the creature with your bull rush. This bonus only applies to Combat Maneuver rolls made to bull rush, reposition, or trip.
     Right Where You Want Them: To use this technique, you must successfully perform a dirty trick on a creature in the first round. If you do, on the second round you gain a +2 bonus to Combat Maneuver rolls. If your dirty trick attack exceeded the creature’s Combat Maneuver Defense by 5 or more, you may reduce the duration of the effect to one round (ending the effect) and gain an additional +2 bonus on Combat Maneuver rolls against the same creature for each round by which you reduced the duration. These bonuses only apply to Combat Maneuver rolls made to drag or trip.
     Thief’s Diversion: To use this technique, you must successfully disarm a creature or sunder a creature’s item in the first round. If you do, on the second round you may make a Combat Maneuver roll to steal an item from the target as a move action.

Mobile Combatant (Tactical)

You flit about the battlefield, making sure your enemies never know where you are or where you’ll be when you next strike.
     Prerequisites: BAB +4, Stealth 6 ranks
     Benefit: The Mobile Combatant feat allows the use of three tactical maneuvers.
     Nimble Sneak: To use this technique, you must make a successful Stealth check to hide in the first round. If you do, you gain a +2 bonus to Climb and Swim checks in the second round.
     Second-Story Artist: To use this technique, you must make a Climb, Fly, or Swim check, or an Acrobatics check to reduce falling damage, in the first round. If you do, you gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls in the second round for every ten feet you moved vertically in the first round. The bonus only applies to attack rolls made against a creature within 30 feet, and only movement made during your turn counts toward the bonus.
     Tricky Step: To use this technique, you must make an Acrobatics check to move through an enemy’s threatened square in the first round and make an attack against that enemy in the second round. If you do and you flank the enemy, you may treat the opponent as flat-footed for your first attack in the second round even if they normally cannot be caught flat-footed. This does not allow you to make a sneak attack against a creature immune to sneak attack.

Tactical Healer (Tactical)

Your mastery of healing spells lets you use residual curative effects to bolster your magic.
     Prerequisites: Ability to cast cure serious wounds, caster level 5th.
     Benefit: The Mobile Combatant feat allows the use of three tactical maneuvers.
     Divine Cascade: To use this technique, you must cast a spell from the conjuration (healing) school in the first round. If you do, you gain a +2 bonus to your caster level on any spell you cast from the conjuration (healing) school in the second round.
     Flow of Grace: To use this technique, you must cast a spell from the conjuration (healing) school in the first round and use a class ability that heals hit point damage (such as a cleric’s channel energy, a paladin’s lay on hands, or a witch’s healing hex) in the second round. If you do, you may increase your effective class level for the class ability by a number equal to level of the spell you cast in the first round. The class ability cannot be used to heal yourself or deal damage to enemies.
     Healing Conversion: To use this technique, you must cast a spell with the “harmless” saving throw descriptor in the first round and cast a spell from the conjuration (healing) school in the second round. If you do, any creature targeted by both spells cures an additional 2 points of damage per level of the second spell, but the duration of the first spell is reduced by one round.

Please note the first technique in each feat. For those techniques, the action in the second round can also qualify as the first round for the same technique. That’s intentional. A character using overbearing momentum can bull rush in the first round, use the bonus to CMB to bull rush in the second round, then use the result of the second bull rush to gain a bonus in the third round, and so on, as long as he does nothing but bull rush. A character using nimble sneak gains a +2 bonus to Climb and Swim as long as her Stealth check never fails. A healer using divine cascade gains an effective +2 to caster level as long as he heals every single round. They’re nontrivial bonuses, but they all lock a character into doing something that’s not always beneficial or wise.

Unlike channeled spells or the powers in 4E, this isn’t brand-new ground. Tactical feats existed for a while and there’s little reason not to use them. I found about two dozen in various books before stopping, not least because searching every book for the word “tactical” is really boring. They’re all built for 3.5E and most of them can work in Pathfinder with few if any changes. It means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just remind everybody that it exists.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, Game Design, House Rules, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Multi-Round Actions (Part 3, 4th Edition)

Channeled spells are great and all, but they don’t exist in 4th Edition. This entire endeavor started because I was tired of the “if you don’t make an attack, you’ve wasted your turn” design philosophy and play methodology of 4E, so of course I was eventually going to write about about multi-round actions in a system where there’s no such thing.

I knew that I wasn’t going to invent things like full-round actions or two-round actions because I want to stick with the existing capabilities of the system, within reason. This means that I had to come up with a way for actions to flow from one to another, where one or more actions serve as the setup for something that come later. I just had to come up with a way for this to happen. I didn’t expect to come up with three.

By the way, WordPress really doesn’t like the science I do with tables, which is one of the reasons channeled spells were on their own page. But this time I want to say something between examples, so this is an image-heavy post. If you’re on a mobile device or operate your Internet by hand-crank, you may want to hold off on this one. (Also, thanks for being so dedicated to the blog! Hand-cranks are hard!)
Continue reading

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Multi-Round Actions (Part 2, Channeled Spells)

When I thought of “things in D&D that can take more than one round”, the first place I went was “spells”. However, that space in D&D is largely filled with “spells not designed for combat” and “sorcerers trying to use metamagic feats no matter how little the designers wanted them to”, not so much “spells too awesome for a mere six seconds”. The only place I found combat-ready spells that took more than one round was the Player’s Handbook II, which introduced channeled spells.

Here’s the short version. A channeled spell has a mutable casting time. The longer a caster puts energy into the spell, the more powerful the spell is, within specified limits. Channeled spells usually do something mildly helpful when cast as a swift action, something fair when cast as a standard action, something interesting when cast as a full-round action, and something powerful (but not as powerful as casting two spells) when cast as two full-round actions. This means that with the same spell slot a caster can throw out a quick swift-action version of the spell to shore up their turn, spend twelve seconds focusing and releasing a game-changer, or something in between.

A caster doesn’t need to decide the casting time when they start casting. If a wizard starts casting a channeled pyroburst, she probably intends to spend two rounds and drop a much scarier version of fireball when she’s done. But if her allies rush into the area between rounds one and two, she can shrug, release the spell for less damage in a smaller area to preserve party continuity, and carry on with her turn.

Once I decided I wanted to write more channeled spells to scratch the multi-round action itch, I looked at everything Wizards had done in the space. All of the example channeled spells (hint: the full text of all three fits on one page) are basically mundane spells that get louder and louder as casting time increases. Channeled divine health gets a bigger range and heals more damage, channeled divine shield gives more damage reduction, and channeled pyroburst deals more damage in a bigger area. The spells get stronger, but they don’t get more interesting. They don’t offer any more options or utility. Given that they’re designed to get better as a player works at them, I found channeled spells a prime opportunity for presenting a list of options (benefits, targets, anything that allows choice) and letting a player pick from them.

So, yeah, I told you that story to tell you this one.

There are a few goals I had while working on these:

  1. Spells of various levels. The original three spells were all 3rd- and 4th-level, making them inaccessible for new characters and somewhat irrelevant at high-level.
  2. One spell for each school of magic. Channeled spells should be accessible to all casters, not just specific builds.
  3. Combat spells only. There’s little downside to a multi-round casting time if progression isn’t measured in rounds, so no exploration- or interaction- based spells and only one pre-combat buff. I suppose you could argue that a multi-round cast is easier for people to detect when you’re trying to cast one surreptitiously, but that’s enough of a corner case that I don’t see a point in designing for it.
  4. Try to present a list of options and allow the caster to pick from among them. It’s perfectly fine for a spell to just get bigger and bigger the longer you channel it, but it’s not as fun.

You can find my results here. They’re not playtested and there’s still work to be done around balance, but I hope I’ve opened up the design space for any players interested in firing a Mega Buster.

By the way, combining points (1) and (3) was a pain; there’s only so much a diviner does mid-fight. I didn’t always succeed at (4) either, though I succeeded about as much as I expected to. Where I definitely failed is the spell names. When I eventually play that half-orc sorcerer who uses only custom spells, I might tank his Intelligence so my naming can be excused.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, Game Design, House Rules, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Non-Binary DCs (or, Why Players Can’t Have Nice Things, Part One of Infinity)

D&D is largely a binary system: you either succeed at something or you don’t. There are no partial successes or glancing blows, and aside from critical hits and natural ones on Reflex saves there’s nothing in the system that rewards particularly low or high rolls more than the basic yes-or-no. Results like “if you beat the Swim DC by 10, you can move at double speed” started as house rules, then became optional rules, and only recently graduated to Core rules that players should use. Being good at something doesn’t actually make you better at it, it just makes you more likely to succeed the same way everyone else succeeds.

Okay, fine, Craft checks take the result into account. But work with me here.

There’s a neat trick I’ve picked up from story-based systems like Apocalypse World and Icons. These systems rank the success of a roll on a small scale. If a player barely succeeds at something, they get some middling result. If they do better, their character does better. Often this takes the form of a list of options, and higher successes give the player more choices from that list.

I think it works best with an example. Say your superhero is using his laser vision against an enemy. The DM says “roll for Laser”, a phrase that should come up at least once per game regardless of system or character. The player rolls a nine, or a thirty, or whatever is a moderate success today. The DM replies “You did well at Laser, but not great. You can hit the enemy to deal damage, hit his power suit to disable him a bit next round, or turn off your laser in time to avoid collateral damage. Pick two.”

This gives the player a choice far beyond “I use Laser”, and they can play it however they want. If they’re playing to the character and the character is a punch-pulling boy scout, they’ll forgo the damage. If the player wants the power suit for later, they may avoid damaging it. And the character is a Rob Liefeld-esque gritty 90s antihero, collateral damage is not only expected but encouraged. The player’s input isn’t done just because they declared an attack, and it opens room for tactical and narrative decision-making.

My current players may be reading this and saying “That is a neat idea, though I can’t help but notice that you haven’t given us an option like this for the entire campaign. What gives?” Well, I’ve tried this before. I put my players into a skill challenge and started through it this way, comparing their rolls to thresholds rather than straight DCs. The first time a player (we’ll call this player “Terry”) did anything but a raucous success, I relayed three options and told Terry to pick two.

Terry froze, completely. That is, I-dont-understand-the-question, did-I-hit-or-not, why-won’t-my-tongue-work froze. I would have gotten a better response if I’d based the skill challenge on a real-world game of lacrosse. It took some serious cajoling before I got a response at all, which occurred when the party was able to band together and mutually agree on the best set of options. Terry made no actual single-person decision. For the rest of the skill challenge the party didn’t pick any results without a committee consensus.

This is, as the alert reader might note, the exact opposite of how the mechanic should work. It’s intended as a tool for character exploration, tactical and strategic differentiation, and individual expression. Instead, every character acted in the way that the party as a whole thought they should act. The entire party had a say in the turn of every other party member, which not only slowed the skill challenge but removed each player’s ability to control their own turn. Enforcing group silence in later skill challenges did little; turns were faster but each player still considered things from a “what would the group want?” paradigm, and we had to remind Terry that asking the other players for advice was not feasible. We no longer had a series of distinct personalities with different combat styles, we had a group combat style from which deviation was quietly discouraged.

I would love to blame the players for this, in the same way I would love to blame my oven for burning dinner. In truth it’s more likely that the group’s style of play was not conducive to threshold-base successes. Some players like the finality of complete success or complete failure and just want the minutia as flavor text; to them, “you hit the orc for ten damage” and “the orc twists out of the way, preserving vital organs, but your blade still makes a nasty slice against his thigh” are both good because there’s no variance in what actually occurs. It’s not a fault, but a preference, and in a world of ambiguity I get its appeal. In addition, some groups work as a team no matter what else happens or what’s appropriate for the characters. That’s a great trait for a bunch of superheroes or a dedicated adventuring party. It’s not very good in the conflict-based, split-the-party-or-else world of story gaming.

I still think it’s something for which D&D has room, more in skill challenges than in combat. I’ve seen tables for glancing hits and broken weapons and strained muscles, and none of it looks fun. If I want something that simulationist, I’ll just go out and hit a guy. But I love letting players act more quickly or succeed beyond expectations when they blow their rolls out of the water, and very few players have given me a hard time with additional short-term penalties for especially botched rolls (hint: those players and I tend not to get along).

I haven’t quite internalized the “come up with three or four options real quick and present them to the players”, but I really want to get into it. I’m already picturing a skill challenge with multiple non-exclusive paths for success or failure, like stopping the magic ritual while also disarming the traps and cleaning up the house before Mom and Dad get home, where big successes address two or more goals while partial successes let you address one situation by making the other situations worse. I know at least one of my current players is reading this paragraph and salivating. And, just as Gygax said*, drool is the best metric for player interest.

That said, I do plan on introducing some of the “present X options / pick X minus Y” into combat. Last time I talked about actions that take multiple rounds, specifically mentioning channeled spells in 3.5E. They’re a prime candidate for this mechanic, which I’ll detail more next time.

* — I can’t actually back that up.

Edit: I still would have done this post if I’d known that Left Oblique had written something on the same topic just a week ago, I promise. Yet another in a long line of “two people in our circles happen to run the same idea in different games without even having spoken to each other about it” instances. I blame the hundredth monkey effect.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, DMing, Pathfinder | 4 Comments

Multi-Round Actions (Part 1, The Folly of Setup)

One of the post ideas that’s been puttering about in my head for at the last year is the conceit that D&D 4E drastically cut down on the amount of actions a player can perform. Ostensibly there are the same number of actions: one standard, one move, one “other” (minor in 4E, swift in 3.5E), and as many free actions as a DM will tolerate. But 4E has this nasty habit of making moves and minors only tangentially relevant for corner cases or builds specifically designed to use/exploit them. Instead, all the money is in standard actions.

In 4E, things get done when characters use standard actions to do them, and most of them time that “thing” is hurting a target guy. A fighter uses a standard action to swing a sword and deal damage; attacking triggers the free side benefit of a mark, allowing the fighter to do his job as a defender. A wizard uses a standard action to cast a spell and deal damage; using this spell causes some control effect, allowing a wizard to do their job as a controller. Even a cleric spends their day making attacks to deal damage, and some of them have the tangential benefit of healing or buffing allies. The actual bread-and-butter healing is relegated to a minor action. 4E is structured around people using standard action attack powers to hurt other people, and perhaps those powers also allow them to fulfill some unique role in the party.

It’s one of the things that gets under my skin with 4E. It bothered me when I couldn’t stand 4E, and even now that I know what 4E does and why I like it I’m still upset by this focus on standard-action attacks. It’s not that standard-action attacks exist, because they’re a reasonable mechanic that know what they want to do and do it well. It’s that the game is built around standard-action attacks to the exclusion and detriment of all other types of actions. I’ve seen far too many players consider that a combat turn without using an attack power is a combat turn wasted, because moving to a better position or helping an ally or trying to disarm the trap aren’t action that hurt enemies. The entire game is phrased around “there are bad guys, kill they” and to the players targeted by 4E any non-killing action is an action not worth taking at all. It’s like the entire role-playing system takes a backseat to an imaginary damage-tracking app, like D&D is some sort of MMORPG raid and anybody not putting up sufficient numbers isn’t pulling their weight.

So I was all ready to write about how much this design choice upsets me as a player, DM, and designer, and as a counterexample I was going to talk about how different and better things were in 3.5E. That’s where I hit a snag: they’re not.

3E is built almost exclusively around standard actions for spellcasters and full-round actions for non-spellcasters. If a wizard spends a round not affecting combat with magic, it’s a waste (or the end of a long day). If a fighter spends a round moving and attacking rather than full-attacking, it’s a waste. This is one of the explicit issues Wizards wanted to address in 4E, the “5-foot-step, full attack, repeat” essence of melee combat, though we ended up with “flurry of expendable powers, then at-will attacks and shifts on repeat”. At least 4E gave players the rare occasion to do something at all with their move actions besides moving, drawing weapons, and trading them for iterative attacks.

Both editions have the same problem with different faces, and that problem is “if you’re not directly affecting the combat right now, you might as well not be doing anything.” There’s almost no support for setting something up and executing it in a turn or two besides buff spells, which generally last for multiple rounds, and the aid another action, which in the opinion of my players is the biggest waste of an action in the Core rules. Usefulness in D20 is defined by an action’s ability to solve a problem quickly, and “in two rounds” is too long a time.

I do have to give some credit to Wizards because they at least tried. Late in 3.5E they introduced spells that got more powerful the longer a character took to cast them. Channeled pyroburst is a ranged burning hands when cast as a swift action, but it’s a stronger version of fireball if you focus on it for two rounds. You can determine your casting time while casting, so you don’t lose the spells if you need to end the casting early. But these were spells introduced so late in the system’s life that they didn’t even make it into the Spell Compendium, even the updated version as far as I’m aware, and most players don’t know about them. With more options at more levels channeled spells become a viable and interesting tactic or character build.

Another multi-round action is a combo, a staple of fighting games and professional wrestling (two of the highest forms of art). The closest thing D&D has to a combo is “I spend an action weakening a target, then spend a round capitalizing”, which as as much a combo as “walk to store, purchase groceries”. 3.5E’s tactical feats tried to provide combos, thing like “charge a target in one round, then Power Attack in the next for bonus damage”. Spellcasters got in on it too, with tactical feats like “cast a darkness spell, then cast a lightning spell next round and everybody is dazzled or something”. But given that 3E players are generally feat-poor, tactical feats often require significant prerequisites, and committing to a combo robs players of their next-turn flexibility, they haven’t seen a lot of play.

It’s not that players are completely patience-averse. I have a player right now who lugs around a cannon. With a half-dozen NPC allies he can aim in one round, fire in the second, and repeat from the third round on. Without said squishy allies, reloading takes much longer. But he’s very willing to basically do nothing for one to three rounds between attacks, because firing the cannon is a nearly-guaranteed hit at ridiculous range for an average of forty-five damage. That’s enough to clobber* an monster of equivalent CR, which means that by round two even a dragon is bloodied with almost no cost or expenditure of resources, unlike spells. The downside is the sit-on-hands period, a sacrifice that the player is willing to make. Even if my other players wouldn’t run a similar character, they generally agree that the cannon is ridiculously powerful and truly awesome when it goes off.

Rather I think the problem is that D&D doesn’t support multi-round actions and players aren’t inclined to go looking for ways to tweak a system that isn’t helping them. A player can write their own channeled spells or tactical feats, or find an option like a cannon, but “just do something twice” is much easier. There’s a reason the only multi-round action that comes up in Core rules, a spontaneous caster using a metamagic feat on an already-long spell, is explicitly a penalty. D&D isn’t designed to handle a setup-and-execute style of play.

There are a few reasons I can think of why this would be. One is that D&D doesn’t like it when a player does nothing for an entire turn because it’s a negative play experience. However, 3E was full of paralysis, sleep, and other effects that take a character out for rounds or minutes, and 4E has an entire monster type and character type based around disabling the other team. Even in 5th Edition [REDACTED]. It’s not a design choice to be avoided if it’s constantly front-and center. Another potential downside is cognitive load, where we require players and DMs to keep track of previous actions to know how their actions this turn will go. But each group already has a method to deal with ongoing effects at the table, a method we can leverage. I don’t see a sufficiently compelling design reason that D&D doesn’t support multi-round actions (feel free to mention anything I missed in the comments).

However, I said that D&D doesn’t support it, not that it can’t. Tactical feats are great, they’re just very specific and suffer from their barriers to entry. Channeled spells are great, we just need more than three of them. 4E runs on powers, and I see room for a power or class that uses something like the Combo keyword in UFS (if you don’t get that reference, that’s fine, because I’ll explain it later).

Right now I’m just pointing out a problem, examining it, and posing a hey-you-know-what-would-be-cool solution. In future posts I want to address each of the examples above and potentially others. I want to come up with ways we can add multi-round actions to D&D without the game grinding to a halt and use those ideas to build something viable enough that we can use it in play without completely rewriting the rules. In a system with as many options as D&D, it doesn’t seem right that that we can’t do something Mega Man has been doing since 1991.

* – “Clobbered” is a house rule status ailment first mentioned in the Player’s Handbook. Per the rule, whenever a creature loses half of their maximum hit points in one attack they are staggered for a round to represent the force of the blow or spell. This makes some sense with a 100-hp character takes fifty damage from a sledgehammer. But it’s a little less fun at low levels where many character don’t have as many as ten hit points. It’s become shorthand in our circles for “received a blow that should stagger or knock out the player, but we ignore that because it’s not fun at all” and it’s representative of an acceptable break from reality even in simulation-heavy D&D.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, Game Design, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Confessions of a DM

I usually have something to say about the articles I mention here, but as soon as I saw “Confessions of a DM” on Table Titans I knew I had to just link to it and throw up my hands. I can’t top that.

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