A Comedy of Eras

I’ve wanted to use that as a post name forever.

There are a lot of “nevers” in conventional DMing advice, and I’ve been on something of an unofficial quest to violate all of them. Consider “never give the players wishes”, but when my players got on a genie’s good side their wishes fed into the campaign plot and basically wrote another campaign for me. Or “never railroad the players,” but the Zelda campaign’s incredibly rigid story structure helped make it one of my best campaigns. Or “never give a player in-character authority over other players”, but I’ve done this for more campaigns than I haven’t, and it’s always worked because the players aren’t petty about their characters’ power structure. Even “never let a player use an unbalanced option that makes them stronger than other players”, but I let a player have a deliberately overpowered version of a spiked chain* and nobody batted an eye. For the most part “never” doesn’t actually mean “never”, it means “consider carefully your intentions and any foreseeable repercussions before you”.

It is with this in mind that I consider the advice “never use time travel” and intend to spend my next campaign willfully ignoring it.

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Subclasses, and What Came Before

This is DMing with Charisma’s 300th post. I was planning on an important, sweeping post describing how my last campaign affected me and how it will affect all of my campaigns going forward from the standpoint of the table experience and the game’s social contract. But instead, let’s talk about something I do like about 5E: subclasses.

Traditionally, a character’s class affects his place in the game more strongly than his other choices. His ability scores affect how good he is at things, and his feats affect specific corner cases, and race can be very relevant if you’re a terrible person, but a class lays out most of what a character does. It determines whether he’s good with certain kinds of equipment, whether he can cast magic, how easy it is to grow in other areas like skills, what things he can do that nobody else can, and often his role within the party. Obviously it’s not as simple as “all fighters have good AC and swing swords and can’t use spells”, but as players we do get a certain picture in mind when we think “fighter”. It’s exactly why I ask my players to describe their characters without using class names, because we have those mental shortcuts telling us how each class works in the game.

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Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, Gaming Systems, Pathfinder | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Role of Rolls

The essence of D&D, and arguably of tabletop roleplaying at all, is randomness. For years it was right there in the name: D&D ran on the d20 system, where players roll a 20-sided die and use rules to interpret the result. Everything about the system comes down to rolling somewhere, and even non-random choices like “you can Hide after making an attack” are actually ways to affect the randomness (here, creating a random chance to hide where normally no such chance would exist). It feels a bit silly to critique 5E for a mechanic it shares with (almost literally) every other game.

The issue at hand is the amount of randomness. Obviously there’s a sweet spot. Too much randomness and there’s no player agency, but too little and there’s no point to the system at all. Which, as I write it, it a succinct way of stating my point: the more randomness there is, the less say players have over what happens, and vice versa. Now that I’m nearly twenty sessions into 5E I think I can safely say the randomness is far more than in any system I’ve played, and that’s incredibly bad.
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The Superman Problem

After several weeks of illness and travel, my first D&D 5E campaign has finally wrapped up. But in the long stretch of time between last two sessions, I realized a normal campaign post-mortem wouldn’t really cover the things I wanted to say. I think it’s more helpful to discuss each issue separately so it has the space it needs, and I’d like to begin by telling you about a pro wrestling match I saw right after the penultimate session.

It featured two popular, skilled men in a match that had minor implications in their storyline but was more an excuse to give both of them something to do. It was a gripping, back-and-forth affair where both competitors pulled out surprising, athletic maneuvers, and they kept the action moving quickly and constantly. Commentary covered it well, the crowd stayed interested, there were no ridiculous shenanigans to take away from the match or the result, and both wrestlers came out looking like beasts, one for his skill and the other for his determination against great odds. It was fun, it was entertaining, it was excellently performed, and I hated it.
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The Secret Language of Character Sheets: Examples

Reading a character sheet isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for. “Longsword: +6 to attack, 1d8+3 damage” doesn’t actually mean anything without context, and that context is usually buried in gaming rules and minutia. Even if you have a frame of reference, like knowing you’re looking at a 2nd-level fighter in 3.5E, the context changes based on the campaign style (“Why don’t you have a magic weapon yet?”), the challenges (“You’re almost guaranteed to kill any goblin in a single hit, that’s ridiculous.”), the setting (“A longsword? So you’re showing off that you’re a foreigner?”), and too many other factors to list. I can’t give you a detailed primer on how to know if your character’s abilities, or the abilities of your players’ characters, fit the character or characters you want to play. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself within your campaign framework.

What I can do is give you examples of reading character sheets for information and what we learned from those examples. These aren’t direct recommendations like “if a character’s attack bonus falls below the recommended range for an attack bonus at the character’s level, that character is not interested in front-line combat”. Hard and fast rules don’t work for this. Instead they’re concepts, gentle nudges that say “here’s what we noticed, here’s what it meant, here’s how we reacted or did not react, and here’s the result” to demonstrate the general flow of this activity.
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