Hazards of 5E Character Sheet Design

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?

Posted in D&D 5th Edition | Leave a comment

Removing Ability Scores

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.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, D&D 5th Edition, DMing, Gaming Systems, House Rules, Pathfinder | 1 Comment

In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: The Definition of Charisma

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.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, D&D 5th Edition, DMing, Game Design, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Lanaguage: What Measure is an 18?

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.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, DMing, Gaming Systems, Pathfinder | 1 Comment

The Life of a Prop (or, Confessions of a Dire Pack Rat)

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.

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Racial Alignment Preferences (or, the Evil of Being Born Human)

There’s been an understanding in previous editions that most NPCs are neutral. That is, neutral is the default of the universe for any creature with the ability to have an alignment (as opposed to fiends, celestials, dragons, etc. who are born with certain moral and ethical predilections). PCs are no different; characters tend toward good because players like being heroes and because books and DMs shy from evil characters, not because evil is any less likely to acquire class levels than any other alignment.

Given this tendency toward neutrality, let’s see how the common PC races in Dungeons and Dragons: Mordenkainen Goes West deal with it:

Dwarves are mostly lawful and tend toward good.
Elves are mostly chaotic and tend toward good.
Halflings are mostly lawful good.
Humans tend toward no alignment.

…Wait.

I could rant all day about how the arithmetic of “most creatures are neutral, also most races are good” works out, or how limiting “PCs races have free will, except most of the time” is. But getting into the mindset behind those design decisions is just depressing. Instead I want to talk about the fact that humans are the only common PC race that doesn’t lean good and what that means.

There are a lot of traits rulebooks apply to humans to differentiate them from other races: adaptable, ubiquitous, varied, ambitious, and other words that mean “humans are harder to define than other races because we can’t just create them from whole cloth as something simple“. But one traits humans have never had is “good”. Other races are allowed to lean toward one alignment or another, but humans aren’t. They’re supposed to be the average, the baseline by which other races are measured. When we say dwarves are short and and rigid, and when we say elves are lithe and haughty, we mean in comparison to a Platonic universal human. It’s what we as players understand the best, so we phrase things in terms of their differences from us.

But what’s happening here is that all of the common PC races are “good” as compared to humans. All of them. This shifts the baseline, and now humans are the outlier. It’s more accurate to say “humans lean evil more than every other PC race”*. It’s just one metric but it’s an important one especially with how 5E treats alignment.

Perhaps things aren’t as dire as all that, because there are other PC races even if they’re in the “uncommon” section. So let’s consider them:

Dragonborn tend to be either incredibly good or incredibly evil.
Gnomes are good, specifically neutral good.
Half-elves tend toward chaos.
Half-orcs are mostly chaotic and often evil.
Tieflings tend toward chaos and evil.

A few of the uncommon PC races lean evil (one might make the argument that this is why they’re uncommon races, but that’s neither here nor there). But look at it more closely. Tieflings lean evil, and they explicitly descend from fiends. Half-orcs lean evil, and per 5E rules this is because that’s how orcs are and they’d better like it. Dragonborn can lean evil, and while it’s not called out in the rules it’s hard to ignore that they also have born-evil dragons in their ancestry.

So to be a PC race that leans evil, or more specifically a race that does not lean good, one of the following must be true:


  1. The race is made of the progeny of an explicitly, inherently, unfailingly evil creature.
  2. The race is part human

This is not good company.

It’s a fairly common trope to lambast humans, mostly because we invented every other race. Elves are allowed to say “How uncivilized human are!” because we’ve written them to be enlightened. Dwarves are allowed to ask “Why do humans kill each other?” because we’ve written them a history with no internal conflict in hundreds of years. Usually there’s no opportunity for debate; humans are just worse and that’s the way things are. It varies by the author whether we do this to point out how terrible humans are to each other, or to use an idealized race in a storytelling role, or because we’re making a comment about conflict inherent in differences, or out of sheer laziness, or some other reason.

But I’m not used to seeing it in D&D rulebooks. Normally all PC races have the capacity for all alignments, with trends one way or another but noting too strong. In 3E we called this “often [alignment]“, which represented that a plurality but not a majority of a given creature fit that alignment. Dwarves were “often lawful good”, which meant about 50-60% were other alignments not counting further adjustments for subraces. Changing this to “most dwarves are lawful good” not only morally elevates dwarves as a race but damages a race like humans that shows actual variance.

I have seen plenty of systems, games, movies, etc. that specifically call out humans for being awful to each other and to the rest of the world. Almost universally, these are depressing, often dystopian worlds where conflict is inevitable if not encouraged and the threat of evil looms large if it hasn’t already won. If you’re the sort of player who takes pleasure in being a real-world race your fiction actively despises, you’re probably the kind of player who also takes pleasure in very dark media. There are plenty of systems and D&D worlds where that’s true, but they tend to be dark for everyone: dwarves are more militant, elves exercise their ancient grudges, etc. It changes the tenor of the game when humans, and only humans, are as a race unable to rise above the alignment median.

Of course, elevating humans in kind doesn’t much work. If humans tended good, we’ve moved our baseline, and “good” no longer means anything because that’s where we’re supposed to be. Instead of good / neutral / evil, we have normal / evil / Dick Dastardly.

I think it comes down to the story the game wants to tell. Unfortunately, that story is that races are morally better for not being humans, and that race is a strong factor in determining worldview. It’s a nature versus nurture debate where 5E comes down hard on the side of the former by presenting it as the latter; elves are born chaotic and good, and luckily they tend to be raised in a society that emphasizes chaos and goodness and there’s no reason to consider what would happen if they were raised elsewhere. For all the vaunted “free will” that PC races tend to have in choosing their alignment, most of them sure don’t show it. It’s a cartoon version of alignment, where you can kill the orc because it’s an orc and you can trust the dwarf because it’s a dwarf and there’s no reason to put any more thought into it than a simple knee-jerk racial stereotype.

So the question is, why? Do we have Saturday morning morality because we asked for (or the designers thought we asked for) something simple? Are the races set up this way to appease people who want racial alignment with the expectation that many DMs and players will ignore it? Is this just so the variants, like a chaotic evil halfling, seem that much more important because they’re unusual (though, see the “all of them are unusual” argument)? Did we just really, really want halflings thrown out and hobbits in their place?

I don’t know. But I strongly suspect that this is the inevitable result of having a primary design consultant who believes that race is the most important part of a character, more than personality, alignment, class, backstory, goals, flaws, or achievements. And the more we tie character traits like alignment to race, the more correct that view gets at the expense of player freedom and a realistic world.

* — Is this contraposition? I didn’t do well in that class.

Posted in D&D 5th Edition, DMing, Game Design | 2 Comments

DMG Basic Rules – A Quick Comment

I’m sure I’ll be spending some time going over the basic version of the DMG, which the World Engineer was kind enough to link and which you can find here, but I had to get this one out. Most of the document is example monsters, so the first section with real, usable DMing information begins on page 56 (of 61). There, the rules discuss encounter difficulty and construction via XP budgets.

Page 57 has a large table with XP values per player. The intent is that the DM will get a player’s level, look up that row in the table, add it to the numbers corresponding to the second player’s level, then the third, etc. to get the budget. Then the DM thinks of an encounter, adds the XP values for the monsters together, multiplies that total by a number from another table based on the number of monsters in the encounter, and compares that to the budget.

If you think that’s a lot more simple arithmetic than “4th-level party gets CR 4 encounter”, you’re right, but I can’t fault them for trying to err on the side of balance. It’s not like CRs were perfect anyway. If nothing else it’s encouraging me to build monsters worth 163 XP just to see the math go wrong for other DMs.

And that’s the thing. 25% of page 57 is the table. Another 25% is a detailed example showing how the system works, because it’s complicated enough that it needs as much text to explain as the PHB’s description of the origin of magic. But what gets me is that another 25% of the page is a sidebar with the exact same example, to the word. Except in the sidebar, the math is wrong.

I get that the rules are still in flux (within reason—if major rules changes are still happening a month before the street date, that’s a bit worrying) and that being upset at the basic rules is like being mad at a video game in beta. But if the new process for designing encounters is so complicated that the designers get it wrong in published material the first time they try to explain it to players, maybe CRs weren’t so bad.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 5th Edition | Leave a comment

Player’s Handbook

I’ve spent about a week going through my copy of the The Dungeons and Dragons Strikes Back Player’s Handbook. It’d love to give a review if it, I really would. But normally when I look at a book that book exists in a framework already created by the core system. I can consider what the book adds, whether it’s done well, whether it’s necessary or helpful, and so on. But these are the core rules. This is establishing a new framework, so a review of the book is really a review of 5th Edition.

And if I don’t want to talk about 5E before I play it, what can I really review? The layout? (Four stars—it’s arranged the same way as the 3E PHB, which I at one point had nigh-memorized, so it’s easy to find things even if I still can’t stand that picking your race comes before picking your class and both come before determining your personality.) The art direction? (Three stars—I recognize some pictures from older books, which is a little weird for a book based around a fresh start on rules, but the art itself is very good except for every atrocious picture of a halfling.) The sturdiness? (Jury’s still out—let’s see how well the spine holds up in five years.)

So rather than give any sort of real review, I’m going to go over my list of Headscratchers, which is not about mysteries or puzzles but rather what TV Tropes now calls the It Just Bugs Me section as part of its concerted effort to make names as unhelpful as possible. Basically, the things that bother me about how I understand the current incarnation of the rules, in decreasing order of severity:


  • Alignment is everything I’ve been telling players it’s not since I started DMing—a shackle applied to creatures that restricts their behavior and forces them into specific actions. PC races can choose their alignment because the gods love them, but monstrous races were made by evil gods and will always lean toward evil no matter how heroic they want to be. Celestials can never fall, fiends can never rise, there is no room for interpretation on what “good” and “evil” are, and so on. It’s a very children’s cartoon mentality that I’ll be resolutely ignoring.
  • Faerun. Just…Faerun. And on a related note, apparently Drizz’t is the iconic elf character now.
  • There are eight schools of magic, so wizards have eight archetypes. There are dozens of domains, so clerics have seven archetypes. There are dozens of powerful creature types across the planes, so sorcerers get…two archetypes. There are myriad ways to combine expertise with nature, magical aptitude, spirit channeling, combat, and animal transformation, so druids…also get two archetypes. I get that the company is named after wizards, but this feels like the designers were more worried about disappointing the subset of gamers who want each school specialization than the much larger subset who prefer having more options for another class or, blasphemy of blasphemies, being a generalist wizard.
  • There are only thirteen backgrounds, and we’re missing things like “farmer” and “raised to be an adventurer”. I love the background mechanic and though I know they’ll add some in supplemental material I was hoping for a little more out of the box.
  • Bards can only use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus. If you’re an oratory bard? Carry a piano. (Note to self: no players may be a bardic El Kabong. He was clearly a rogue.)
  • Each class table has a column for proficiency bonus, but it’s the same for every class and the same column is already in the “all characters use this information” table in Chapter 1. It seems like a waste of space to duplicate that column twelve more times.

These got really nit-picky by the end, but it’s a fairly complete list. If I didn’t mention something else (like advantage/disadvantage, shared spell slots for multiclassing, proficiency bonuses to spell DCs, etc.) I either like it, tolerate it, or didn’t notice it.

I’m sure I’ll have more likes and gripes when I start playing it, and even more when I start running it. But for now I’m just rifling through the book, seeing which characters of mine are newly or no longer viable and daydreaming about whom I’m going to play.

Posted in Book Reviews, D&D 5th Edition | 4 Comments

The Great Tower of Oldechi: Conclusion

I’m still really, really happy with this campaign. Normally the further removed I am from a campaign the more I see what I did wrong and the less I remember about its successes, which is why I had to reread everything I had done for the Monster Campaign before I could talk about it on a podcast. But this campaign generated more good stories, more awesome moments, and more great characters on both sides of the screen than any other I’ve run. Sure, it had an advantage in that it had three times as many sessions as my second-longest campaign, but a good thing is a good thing.

There were a lot of little lessons I learned during this campaign: sometimes a build for your character doesn’t exist in the core rulebooks, a single good picture can generate an adventure’s worth of plot hooks, deathjump spiders are terrifying, and so on. But looking at the whole thing from start to finish, here’s are the bigger lessons, the ones it took me the entire campaign to accept and use:

  • 4E can’t do everything, but it’s really, really good at the things it can do and much of the rest can be added on. I came in more familiar with 3E, which was a different system with a different goal and a different target audience, and initially I was disappointed that I couldn’t do in 4E what I could in 3E. But working in it for so long gave me a chance to see what 4E was designed for and add things to it that I found lacking. We’d push the system a bit harder for the One Piece Campaign, but this was a good start. At this point I’ve stopped looking at it as a system I have to use because it’s what’s running and started seeing it as a different tool to get a specific feel out of a campaign, which is what it (and every system, really) is. It’s a lesson I’m carrying with me as I look at 5E.
  • Player composition makes or breaks a campaign. Usually this is one of the first lessons a DM learns by getting it wrong, but I’ve never had a single campaign that let me compare apples to apples so strongly. We had eleven players running a total of nineteen characters (counting all versions of a given character as one, and not counting any guest players or characters) plus me and everyone I threw at them. It was startling how much the feel of the campaign improved from when we had players and characters who didn’t get along to when we had the final party. I’ve gotten a lot pickier since then about players, which is probably as bad as it is good.
  • Reskinning is awesome. I’d encouraged it in 3.5E, but 4E has a design aesthetic of “write powers that do things and worry about the abstraction later”, which makes it real easy to tweak said abstraction. Because early on I tended to use published monsters and powers (see about two paragraphs down) I got a lot of practice at stripping away the pretty parts of a power, getting to the roots, and building new prettiness. That’s helped me in a lot of ways over my career and it’s opened the floodgates for character design.

In general there’s not a lot I’d change about the campaign because it ran pretty well at it was. But if I had to change things, it would be these:

  • A little less monster-of-the-week, a little more myth arc. As I said in the Senna and Giza posts, there weren’t a lot of plots that lasted from floor to floor. There were some (dealing with the tower guardians; the tower-spanning organization and the havoc it caused) but they weren’t as strong a thread as they could have been. It wasn’t until late Act 2 that the party really got rivals to compete against, for example, and my players will let you know how much I normally love that trope.
  • Complete monster redesigns. When I started the campaign I wasn’t comfortable with making custom monsters and I ended up cobbling together powers from other published creatures. One campaign later, I won’t allow a pre-built monster at all. I think the early campaign would have been a lot more interesting if I’d had this level of system expertise from the get-go.
  • Get a better handle on the late tower guardians early, and allow the guardians to meet the party in sections of the tower that weren’t their own. There’s no reason the tower guardians couldn’t have had a bit more to do with each other, perhaps subverting each other’s floors and using the party as a catalyst to bicker. It would have given the players a better handle on the guardians’ personalities and let me introduce some smaller multi-floor arcs to mitigate the monster-of-the-week problem above.

This campaign has even colored later campaigns from an in-universe perspective. The final party ascended to godhood and has been added to the pantheon of almost every campaign I’m running regardless of the system or who the others gods are. It does mean that universe-wide divinity leans more toward evil than it used to, and that’s something we’ll have to explore in bits and pieces over the coming years. Right now I’m still trying to convince somebody to follow one of these new gods; it seems having a player worshipping another player is a bit squicky.

I don’t think I’ll ever run another campaign like the Great Tower of Oldechi because I don’t see a need to explore that story again. It works fine on its own, the sense of discovery wouldn’t be the same a second time, and I have more campaigns I want to run than I have time and players anyway. Right now I’m running a campaign set in Hyrule (the rare setting where I’m not adding the new gods) and I expect the campaign after that will be the Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl. If players won’t pray to other former players, maybe they’ll rescue them instead.


For anybody who was playing at home, the tower guardians were based on the seven wonders of the ancient world: Alex and his lighthouse (the Lighthouse of Alexandria), Rody and his giant construct (the Colossus of Rhodes), Haelyn (the mausoleum at Halicarnassus), Jay (the Statue of Zeus at Olympia [I couldn’t come up with a way to make this one fit without being obvious, but Jay did fight with large statues and made it clear that he was not using his real name]), Diana (the Temple of Artemis [Diana’s Greek expy] at Ephesus), Senna and his hanging trees (short for Sennacherib, a potential owner of the place on which the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are based) and Giza (the Great Pyramid of Giza).

Posted in Campaign Writeups, D&D 4th Edition, DMing | 3 Comments

The Great Tower of Oldechi: Giza

The thing I liked most about Senna was that he wasn’t entirely wrong. Players do love causing havoc. In my experience there’s nothing a player enjoys more than doing something for which they believe the GM is not prepared, whether it’s ignoring the plot hooks or killing the big bad with a lucky critical hit or stabbing the king instead of negotiating with him. It’s a proclivity I see less in experienced players than new and less in story gamers than other types, but even the most narrative, deeply-embedded, bleed-heavy roleplayers sometimes get that look in their eyes that comes with an understood “Dance, DM monkey, dance for my amusement!”

Most campaigns have a plot that helps limit this. The players won’t stab the king because then they’ll be hunted by the guard, and they won’t ignore the plot because the plot is about saving kittens and the players are generally affable folk. But as I pointed out last time the Great Tower of Oldechi was different. It took a certain type of floor and a certain type of guardian to give the players long-term consequences for their actions. On top of that the characters were pretty bad people (three evil and three unaligned, and of them four were largely self-serving). With this situation and this group facing the end of the campaign, I figured the final tower guardian would either have to finally punish or reward them in a meaningful way for being who they were and doing what they did.

Giza did both. He was the only unabashedly evil tower guardian, and he wanted to lead climbers into depravity. He wanted to see them commit evil great and small, maiming and cheating everybody they wanted to, and he would happily reward them whenever they took the easy way out. But as it is with evil, the rewards weren’t always as good as they seemed.

Let me tell you a story. Way, way back in the far-off year of 2006 our FLGS became a site for beta-testing a new card game, The Spoils. Like Magic: the Gathering The Spoils* used five “mana types”, but they didn’t represent magical energy. Players played factions or guilds warring for dominance, so resources were trades that suited the game: bankers representing greed, rogues representing deception, warlods representing rage, gearsmiths representing elitism, and arcanists representing obsession. The beta of the game came with a slew of these resource cards. Eventually the game collapsed, leaving us with a bunch of cards for a game nobody was playing. Since there wasn’t a demand for them at the store I requested them, figuring I could use them somehow.

Years later I finally figured out how. Whenever a character in Giza’s floors succumbed to one of those traits (greed, elitism, etc.), I gave them a Spoils resource. For example, if a player ended negotiations by rolling initiative I would give them a rage card, and if they insulted a crowd of NPCs I would give them an elitism card, and so on. Players could trade in these cards for specific benefits, like trading in a rage card for +5 damage on an attack. This worked largely the same in-game as it did at the table, with Giza awarding the character an intangible magic charge that would manifest at their command.

It quickly became clear that I had some hidden agenda for doing this, and immediately after that it became clear that almost nobody cared. Regardless of the true purpose behind the cards, a +10 bonus to an Athletics check was too tempting to resist. I can’t be sure how much players went out of their way to acquire cards but I know they cashed them in a lot. The players used sixty-two cards between Floor 27 and Floor 30 and they gained a few they didn’t end up using.

I don’t have numbers for the cards I gave out because those number didn’t matter. Only the cards spent mattered because that was what Giza cared about. He knew that people sometimes got angry or haughty or deceitful, and that was fine. What he wanted to know was how often people would do it for their own benefit and whether they would lie, cheat, and steal more often if they knew there were further benefits down the line. He (read: I) was running a study on the characters to see what they did when evil was more rewarding than good but carried an unknown future penalty. And at the end he made sure they knew how far they had fallen: for each card a character spent, the bosses at the end of Floor 30 would increase in power.

Long story short, we had a boss with an AC of 57 and another with a +131 bonus to Intimidate checks. The full story requires more gesticulation than a blog post can handle.

The material downside of the cards wasn’t the point. The point was that Giza said to the players “You’ve been getting away with a lot this campaign. In the previous section of the tower you learned that your actions have consequences. Now, with that in mind, are you willing to take shortcuts to get what you want, knowing that short-term gain will lead to long-term consequences?” And the players overwhelmingly said “Of course we are! What’s wrong with you?”

I’m not saying that the players learned nothing, though that’s possible. It’s also possible that they trusted in their ability to handle anything that came their way regardless of its power level, or that I would never throw anything at them they couldn’t handle, two sides of the same coin. Maybe they wanted to play their characters to the hilt, and since the party ranged from “overly, passionately evil” all the way to “morally ambivalent” that’s somewhat likely and I can’t really fault them for it (though I can always fault a player for creating a given character, and often do). There’s even a chance they carefully weighed all possible outcomes and chose to use cards only at the most dire times; if that’s the case, apparently things got dire around four times a week.

Giza didn’t help matters. He made sure to give characters a chance to flex their muscle on the less-powerful. His floors were filled with things to destroy, NPCs to bully, passive monsters to kill, and the occasional task that actually merited action. They were rife with temptation and opportunity to do evil. In a sense they were like sandbox video games, like Grand Theft Auto. There’s a vast world out there for the players to destroy, and they can destroy it to their hearts’ content, but the more they do the more the weight of the world will bear down on them.

He was something of a sadist DM, presenting the players with great freedom and hoping they didn’t see the fine print. But he also didn’t give the players any situation where they were guaranteed to lose, just situations where it was very, very likely. Giza shared a lot of his philosophy with Senna but went about it in a different way. He was willing to give players a bonus instead of just a lack of a penalty, and he created multiple worlds that he wanted to see the players break instead of a single perfect world that he despondently expected the players to ruin.

Fittingly for a near-final boss, Giza was the most Gygax-like DM in the tower. He viewed the players as antagonists and expected them to do the same to him, he littered his floors with ways the players could suffer for doing mundane things and suffer worse for doing them wrong, and he made it clear from the start that he was in charge and the players should consider themselves lucky to experience his world. But he also had the broadest scope of environments by a wide margin, he gave the players lots of interesting and different things to do, he challenged them in ways they did not expect, and he did it all by throwing out the rules where reasonable and coming up with situations live during play. Whether or not his style is fun depends largely on the campaign, the players, and how friendly the DM is about it.

I never did go back at the end of the campaign and ask what the players thought abut Giza, partially because it broke the story flow and partially because I thought he was too recent for the players to have a proper retrospective opinion about him. Given the heavy player and character rotation, I think it might be hard for the party to look at the campaign as a whole like I can. But that’s another post.

* — I understand that naming things is hard, but that sentence was really rough to type with all the weird capitalization.

Posted in Campaign Writeups, D&D 4th Edition, DMing | 1 Comment