Save versus Frustration

After Geek Girl Con, I spent a week hanging out with my friends in Seattle and was able to get in 3 games while out there, The One Ring, 4e, and Pathfinder. Both The One Ring and Pathfinder games had a higher danger threshold than the 4e game and most of the 4e games I've been in in general. In particular, both had their share of save rolls. I know this is something that used to be a bigger part of D&D but my experiences over the week left me feeling a bit mixed on them.

The One Ring

In The One Ring, I played a wood elf. We were chasing down some dwarves and the trail led to a pool's edge where the tracks mysteriously stopped. A bell began to ring and my character fell victim to its enchantments. Down into the pool she went.

This is the first time I've played a character that was compelled to do something. Since this was a one shot for me and I trust the GM completely (Hi Chris!), it really wasn't a big deal. Out into the hallway we went and he quickly described what was happening. I had a few choices to make, do I wait for my party (not knowing if they would come rescue me, I was a new character after all)? Do I try to swim out of there the way I came in? Or do I open the dark door I found down there? None of these choices are an obvious "right" choice but at least the one I chose, wait for the rest of the party, wasn't an instant death sentence, although some of the players in the room thought my character might be dead already.

Now, if my failed save had led to instant character death, I'm not sure how happy I would have been. I mean, there are times where I wouldn't really care and sometimes games with instant death can be fun. A fair number of video games have that type of behavior, where the fun of the game is more in mastering it than playing through an awesome story. But in this case, there wasn't anything that was obvious to me about what I should do. It would have felt arbitrary and unfulfilling. I guess what I mean is that the setback was nice, but being able to recover from it, even if it meant fighting more monsters, was even better.

Pathfinder

My host Stephen was nice enough to run a Pathfinder dungeon crawl/delve for me during my stay at his house. While I hadn't played Pathfinder before, I had been in a few sessions of a 3/3.5 house-ruled game. However, my character really hadn't had to deal with many save situations and definitely none that involved conditions like paralysis or blindness. The Fellowship of the Tweet had dealt with paralysis (and my cleric's inability to Turn Undead versus some ghouls) but I'm still a little scarred by that encounter.

If I'm being honest, I found the save situations in that game a bit more frustrating. Our barbarian became blinded for an hour after he failed his saving throw versus the blindheim and another character got sucked into a gelatinous cube at one point. While I think I can see what the mechanics were trying to model/accomplish and there is nothing inherently wrong about them, they just aren't my preferred way of doing it.

That said, I did see how they encouraged more creative play (although it's not the first time I've noticed it). Particularly in the case of the blindheim, where you have some options to overcome its gaze attack (which in 4e terms can be used both as an aura and as a ranged at-will). Although the dice weren't in my favor, Stephen said yes to my idea of trying to cover the blindheim's eyes with my cloak, which would have helped my party kill it faster.

I wouldn't mind making it clearer in 4e that DMs could allow creative solutions like that in their games, perhaps even in the monster's statblock. We already have this to a degree. For instance, the wraith loses its insubstantial trait until the start of its next turn whenever it takes radiant damage. This might encourage a divine character to choose a less powerful attack with the radiant keyword to give the party a better chance of hitting and killing the creature. However, we could expand this even more and make it more like a trap or hazard where the PCs can take countermeasures to avoid a particularly damaging attack or stop a buff. Spend a standard action and one part of the monster's special powers goes away for a turn.

This might also give space for the people who like to play helper characters. Instead of making certain classes be helpers, individual players can decide how to play out those classes. And while not everyone can necessarily help with every monster, helping isn't limited to a particular class type. This might be more fun and rewarding than the existing aid another rules.

So how would this work? Let's take the blindheim as an example. In 4e, I would make its gaze attack into an aura. Entering or starting your turn in the aura causes you to grant combat advantage and provides a -2 to attack rolls since the creature's gaze is so distracting. If you end the turn in the aura, you have to make a saving throw against becoming blind. (Alternatively, we could do this when you start or enter, with a successful saving throw meaning you grant CA and have the -2 penalty instead of being blinded.)

Since Gaze attacks can't be done while the creature is blinded, players could find ways to blind the creature. Perhaps they have a power that causes blindness or they decide to put a cloth over the creature's eyes. The type of action required (standard or minor) should be determined by the benefit they gain from the action. In the terms of this aura, I'd say they were gaining a pretty big benefit on success, and would require a standard action, since not only would they as an individual benefit but the whole party as well.

What Do You Think?

So, let's say you were faced with a creature like the blindheim. How would you overcome its special powers? How far can we push this while still keeping the rules fairly light? Would you allow someone to spend their standard action, no check, to try to blind the blindheim?

Geek Girl Con Recap

As many of you know, I went to Geek Girl Con last weekend. I had a lot of fun and I thought it went pretty well for a first year con.

Why go?

  • To hear a diversity of viewpoints In many of my more geeky pursuits, of which gaming is just one, there tends to be a lack of women. That leads to the unfortunate tendency of labeling the person by her gender; she becomes the "woman" of the group and the views she expresses tend to represent her group. While this can be problematic in pretty narrow groups, like the "sports guy" or the "optimizer," I find it even harder to deal with when one person comes to represent about half of the population. The great part about having so many women in the room is that it becomes impossible to label women by their gender. We have to look beyond their gender to find their unique trait. As a result, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints among women really comes to the forefront. To me, as someone who works and plays in male-dominated spheres, that was freaking awesome. The con had about 1500 attendees and with approximately 70% of the attendees being women.
  • To see women presented as experts and leaders In technology and gaming, it feels that women tend not to be out there in leadership roles. At something like Geek Girl Con, they need to be. In addition, at least in US society we often undervalue the contributions of women or think they are incapable of doing things. For instance, in Bossy Pants, Tina Fey discusses a number of stereotypes about women that she had to actively work against including a belief that women could not be funny or that you couldn't put two women comedians out on the stage at the same time. Sometimes similar tendencies crop up in the geeky hobbies. Often, many of the women work behind the scenes, not getting the spotlight for their contributions. Having them step out into the spotlight and show that they know their stuff and are comfortable in their own skin helps change this perception among elements of geekdom that women aren't in geeky pursuits or that they can't hold their own against their male counterparts.
  • To learn about some pretty awesome books, movies, and projects I have to admit, I hadn't heard of Ink-Stained Amazon before the con. I went to the panel by Jennifer Kate Stuller and it was really good and I can't wait to buy her book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology. Womanthology also presented at the con.
  • Building networks One thing that often gets overlooked in the discussions of how to get more women into designing is how people get encouragement to put themselves out there. Among my friends who work for gaming companies, I hear a lot of informal encouragement such as "Well, my buddy from high school or college or the guy I hang out with happens to work for the company and encouraged me to apply." In my experience, those groups tend to be more single sex and since many of the designers and developers currently are men, sometimes it's harder for women to break in. Of course, there is a lot of human nature to this, why would you want to work with complete strangers when you can work with friends, but encouraging expanded friendship circles through a con like this seems awesome to me.

Sure, there were some downsides to the con. As a first year con, they had some issues with logistics. Since most people had to pick up their badge the morning of the con, the lines were long. Also, walking between the two main areas made it hard to get to panels on time. Some of the panels were hit and miss. I went to the women of Star Wars panel not realizing they would focus mainly on costuming and parts of the Expanded Universe, which while cool, isn't really my thing. The gaming and exhibitor rooms were pretty small.

I also noticed a lack of gaming companies represented there, which, I have to be honest, made me a little sad. I would have loved to see a panel with women who work in the tabletop industry talk about their experiences and answer questions. Although I missed out on attending it, I loved that there was a Bioware panel and its existence felt like a warm, welcoming hug.

Finally, I wish there were more areas to break out and form ad hoc groups and panels. Among the tech conferences I go to, a favorite thing is "Birds of a Feather" groups. Basically a few rooms are left open for groups to sign out as they desire. If a group wants to get together to talk about say, tabletop gaming or finding and encouraging female artists, they can totally do that. The informal setting sometimes works better for certain topics and gives groups that form during a panel to go to continue the discussion.

Personally, it was awesome seeing a bunch of people, including Logan Bonner ( @loganbonner ), Susan J Morris ( @susanjmorris ) , Liz Smith ( @dammit_liz ), Mike Robles ( @michaelrobles ) and Erin Evans ( @erinmevans ). I also met up with Cathé ( @gamermom1_0 ) and Tim ( @timsmartini ) Post and their adorable daughter who is now my BFF. Meeting Meris ( @merismullaley ) (also my host for the weekend), Michelle, Genevieve ( @thestormycellar ), Tanis, and Jennifer was really awesome. Overall, the best part of the con was just meeting and seeing people while we discussed what happened in the panels. I really enjoyed my time there and hope to go next year.

You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'

It's easy to dismiss concerns or criticism about rules changes, proposed or implemented, as being a grognard, especially in D&D. "You don't like it because it's different," they'll say, "but you'll just buy it in the end." But my understanding is that with the current state of things, and particular with the Legends & Lore articles, we're supposed to talk about it. It's their way of getting community feedback, good or bad, on what they are working on.

Now I reacted pretty strongly to the most recent Legends & Lore article, Magic and Mystery. Twitter can be great about many things but a nuanced discussion of the issues is often difficult in the space of 140 or so characters, especially when having a discussion with particular people, meaning you have to put their twitter handles in with whatever you're trying to say.

So, now that I have a bit more room, let me first say that I'm in favor of the idea of removing magic items from character advancement. I fully acknowledge that the 4e system made it more difficult to run particular types of campaigns. It's also an issue I've discussed before. I love the inherent bonus system, although it doesn't fix this completely, and just felt we needed more guidance on how to use it properly. I also love the new rarity system on magic items to give a DM guidelines about what might be available and what might not be. Again, it's not perfect, but it does attempt to address some of the issues with the current magic system.

However, whatever rule system we put in place, I would love it if more guidance was provided, especially for newer DMs. When I started DMing, I didn't realize that the 4e system required magic items as part of advancement. Given the story and the group, this meant I didn't hand out as many magic items as I should have. While we didn't advance far enough for this problem to become apparent, it wasn't a big deal. But it would have been nice if things were stated a bit more explicitly.

So, it's not the suggested rule change that made me react strongly. I'm in favor, and have been in favor of it for over a year. It's the larger context of the article that made me wonder if I was being trolled by a well-known and well-loved D&D designer and whether or not I should continue to read the articles.

Instead of laying out the issues, the article states that players want a particular type of magic experience from D&D, one in which magic is mysterious. It then goes on to propose that the reason magic is no longer mysterious is that items can no longer do wild and crazy things, in part because they are part of character advancement and also because they are available to players in the form of lists.

Missing from the discussion are the reasons why the system evolved that way. Prior editions where magic wasn't as well codified as 4e had their issues as well. DMs, maybe as a way to bribe their players or under the mistaken impression that adding more cool factor always makes games cooler, frequently gave more magic items than they really should have. They then would try to take those items away from the players, who by that point, thought the DM was playing with them. Trust eroded and the game would become less fun. I personally know of one group that TPK'ed their characters because the game ceased to be fun. (See Monty Haul)

In addition, the old way required DMs to know about the magic items available and put pressure on them to keep up with the books. One of the things I loved about 4e is that each player could tell me what he or she might like and I could keep an eye out for the items that I thought they might want to have. I didn't invest in the Adventurer's Vault series because as a DM, I had enough other stuff to do. I don't want to spend my valuable planning time keeping up with every magic item out there. I just don't. It doesn't mean other DMs don't enjoy it. It just means that there are arguments for allowing players to know what magic items exist and that there isn't one default experience or desire in this area.

Furthermore, there are other just as likely reasons why magic is no longer mysterious that are never explored in the article. After 30 years of playing with magic getting by and large the same treatment, how can it be mysterious for that player? Who is to say that it's not mysterious to the new player who came to the game for the first time within the past two or three years. Maybe there are parts of the magic system that we want to be mysterious and crazy, like the aftereffects of the spell plague in the Forgotten Realms or an artifact lost to the world for thousands of years, but other items, like common spells and prayers should be, well, known.

Rather than seduce us with nostalgia or bash on players for, gods forbid, salivating over an item that perfectly fits their character concept, perhaps we should explore these issues. Also, I find it a bit difficult to talk about solutions to the magic problem only with people who primarily DM. Regardless of which book the magic items end up in, they will have to know about them in the sort of intimate detail that makes mysterious harder if not impossible. Anyway, that's where I'm coming from.

GeekGirlCon!

This weekend is Geek Girl Con in Seattle and I'm heading out to it. For those who haven't heard about it, the convention celebrates the contribution of women to geek culture.

This convention is really important to me. Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to attend jQuery Boston and MongoBoston. Both of them were great conferences for learning more about the technologies I use on a day to day basis. Both of them were also overwhelmingly male. This makes sense, I work in a male-dominated field. Heck, I play in one too.

But sometimes it's nice to get the chance to talk to women like me. I don't have to worry about representing all geek women when talking to other geek women. I don't have to worry about being knowledgeable enough or confirming my geek cred. Learning how other women deal with some of the upsides and downsides of being a woman in geekdom helps. And seeing the diversity of experiences and representations is just, well, awesome.

That's why I'm going to Geek Girl Con. It's sometimes hard to find all these awesome women at conventions like GenCon or PAX. And when I do, I'm often dealing with other messages at the convention that make me feel like I'm not the target audience or that I'm something special or rare. Let's be honest, while it's changed a bit over the last few decades, many games assume a heterosexual male audience and the artwork and advertising in particular often reinforces that. I'm hoping that at this con, some of that fades to the background.

Just as importantly, all geeks, regardless of gender, are welcome.

So, I can't wait. The fact I get to hang out for a week afterward is just frosting on the cake. So if you'll be at the con, let me know.

Making D&D More Casual

Sunday, I mentioned that one of the things I love about Ascension is that for beginners it makes it easy to optimize your turn without knowing all of the rules and strategies of the game. The mechanics limit the choices a player has at any one time, in my estimation often between 2-5 options and the random element of the game dampens the effect of player knowledge on the game. Contrast that with 4e D&D where to create a character you make decisions that touch on just about every subsystem in the game (see Heroes of the Fallen Lands, p 33):

  1. Choose Class - determines your powers and available skills and influences what your ability scores will be.
  2. Choose Your Race - determines bonuses to ability scores which in turn affects a bunch of character build elements.
  3. Determine Ability Scores - determines a number of character build elements including defenses and attack and skill modifiers. Also suggests certain feats and powers over others.
  4. Choose Skills - Training gives you bonuses, but you might have no idea if they will be useful in this adventure or campaign.
  5. Choose Powers - Powers provide tactical benefits but, like skills, for some it can be hard to tell if they will be useful in a particular campaign. Others are only useful depending on what other players pick. For instance, the warlord ability that gave bonuses to melee basic attacks often weren't that great pre-Essentials but were killer with certain Essentials builds.
  6. Select Feats - Feats in 4e provide relatively small bonuses that might not be obvious at first.
  7. Select Equipment - The limited mundane equipment lists at 1st level make things a bit easier, but then again I invested in Fine Clothing when I created my first character so there are still easy suboptimal choices.
  8. Fill in the Numbers - Ok, the character builder does most of this for you.
  9. Other Character Details - Alignment, god worshiped, background, personality, appearance, and languages. The DM and/or adventure determine whether or not any of these matter.
  10. In addition, Heroes of the Fallen Lands specifically suggests looking ahead to see what the hero gains in future levels and use that as a guide for making choices now. That's great if you've already committed to playing this game for multiple levels, but what about the person giving this a try for the first time?

    Level 0

    When I started, this process was a bit overwhelming. I had no idea if anything I picked would actually be useful and, in fact, was disappointed when some of my choices didn't work out as well as I had hoped. Now a good DM can work around these problems, but not every group can or will start off with an experienced DM. The rules and guidance should help new DMs as much as new players. This is one of the reasons why I love the Level 0 rules detailed in the Dragon article "A Hero's First Steps".

    Character creation focuses a lot more on your character's story. Then you pick a power source and gain 1 power from that. The flavor text of each power calls attention to what's unique about that source. For instance, the primal at-will mentions the spirits. They also make it clear how ability scores and powers interact. Each power has 4 riders that are triggered by the use of an experience token. These riders are tied to group roles, so during the course of play the player can try on a number of roles to see which one is the best fit for the player and the character. In my opinion, this is really important and mirrors what kids do during play anyway. Class is something the player picks when moving to first level.

    After power source, the player picks the race, gaining the benefits of that race. After that is ability scores, provided as a choice between two arrays. What I love is that instead of just presenting the arrays with no other guidance, each array has a descriptive label, Promising or Prodigy. Then comes skills. The skill lists are tied to the power source and the player only picks 1 of 3. Unlike the normal skills distribution across classes, this one has little repetition. Finally, the player picks feats (if granted by the character's race) and gear which also is extremely limited.

    I love how this reinforces some of the core concepts of the game such as power source and group role. It also lets them try out a bunch of different options while keeping some things static, such as the character's race. The lack of options also makes it easier to play creatively in the game, at times almost forcing one to do so because there isn't the same assumption that they are likely to succeed at this task. They aren't heroes yet after all.

    Lair Assault

    This ability to experiment with the PC is great, but if the adventures themselves are a moving target, it makes it a bit more difficult to see if the changes a player makes deliver the desired results. One thing I love about Lair Assault is that ability to replay the scenario is built in. I'd love to see similar scenarios aimed at newer players where they can test out their characters and with instructions to newer DMs about how to make the environment and NPCs work together to create more and more interesting encounters. Not all of these should be combat oriented either and it would be cool to have a bunch of them for different terrain types (wilderness, city, dungeon, etc) to use as random encounters.

    D&D Encounters

    D&D Encounters is great because it's a set day and they craft the adventures so the same group doesn't have to show up week to week. For someone who isn't quite invested yet, this can be a great setup. Sure there are problems that not everyone has a local gaming store and not everyone can make Wednesdays. But overall, the system seems to work pretty well and it allows for a more casual gaming experience, something that I think is easier to fit into the lives of the people who might want to play D&D but haven't tried it yet. It definitely echoes my experience with new players at cons like PAX East and NYCC. Those potential players have a lot options competing for their time and a longer player experience means D&D is off the table.

    Overall Recommendations

    • Let players start the game making fewer, more focused choices like in the Level 0 rules. Focus those choices on learning some of the basics ideas of the game and make sure the game world is accessible to them. Give tips to DMs on how to convert some related genres and stories, like Harry Potter and Avatar the Last Airbender, to a D&D setting.
    • Come up with some quick and easy scenarios that new DMs can drop into their game and serve to educate and entertain both player and DM. Try to make them easy to replay as well.
    • Keep the games shorter and more casual but at a set time. Allow players to come and go within the group.

Where do you see your character in 5 levels?

"Where do you see your character in 5 levels?"

Early in my experience with D&D, I tried out a 3.x D&D game my friend was in. My friend and I were trying to create my character when he asked that question. I had no idea how to answer it. I barely knew anything about the classes, or well, the system, as it was; I just wanted to play a game, but doing that seemed to require a fair amount of system knowledge. If you don't necessarily see the relative importance of the choices between characters at level 1, how are you supposed to know where you want to be at level 5?

I prefer it when a system can make a lot of these thoughts disappear for newer players while not erasing them fully for experienced players. This is one of the things I love about Ascension, especially the digital version. In my experience, the game grows with you. The game play itself, along with the randomization, helps narrow your focus and your choices, making the game less overwhelming to a newcomer. As you learn the rules, the different strategies surface as a natural part of the game.

Ascension's victory condition is pretty simple. The player with the most honor at the end of the game wins. The most obvious way to gain honor is by defeating monsters. Heroes and constructs can provide honor during the game as well. Honor gained as the result of game play comes from the shared pool and when the pool reaches zero, the game ends at the end of that round. Most heroes and constructs have an honor value that gets added to the player's total at the end of the game. So both how much honor you gain as a result of game play and how much you collect by building your deck matters.

On your first turn, you have 5 hero cards, all of them give you +1 to one of two resources, runes or power. You use the runes to buy heroes or constructs and you use power to defeat monsters. The center row has 6 random cards, each representing one of those 3 sub-types. Whether or not you can buy or defeat any of those middle row cards depends on their cost compared to your resources for the turn. In addition, there are 3 cards in the upper left that are always available to you, a hero that gives you +2 to runes, a hero that gives you +2 to power, and a monster that gives you +1 to honor.

The digital version highlights the cards that are available to you given your resources. I haven't done the math, but it feels like you often only have to choose between 2-5 options each turn. Just as important, the 3 permanent options in the upper left means you can always do something each turn. The limited options along with the randomization means as a new player, you don't have to worry about all of the strategies for success. You can have a satisfactory game, in my opinion, by making the best decision given what you have before you and you still have a chance at winning the game.

The more I played, the more I saw how certain decisions might build upon one another. Cards bought early in the game can have bigger effects on game play than cards bought later in the game. So as the honor pool decreases, my buying strategy often changes to cards with more honor. Unless I have certain constructs in play, such as the one that puts mechana constructs into play when you acquire them, I don't emphasize constructs over heroes. (By the way, that one combined with the one that treats all constructs as if they were mechana creates a bad ass combo.) There are a bunch of these strategies for a player to discover as he gains more experience.

I like this style of learning in games and would love to bring it to D&D. There's an argument that early D&D games did this, particularly with random ability rolls and frequent character death. The current emphasis on long character arcs, often across 3 tiers and 30 levels of adventures makes it harder to experiment with characters and means players have fewer opportunities to try out different styles of play. This means decisions made early in play are built upon and magnified in later levels, especially in 4e where multi-classing and hybrid classes aren't as robust as they could be. However, the ability in earlier editions, such as 3.5, to gain levels in a different class doesn't necessarily help, since those classes often don't interact with one another. Since the systems assume you will make certain decisions to keep up with the system's math, even new players feel a pressure to know where their character will be in 5 levels when, in my opinion, they should be experimenting with the system to learn how the various bits interact.

I think there are ways to bring this to 4e. I'll write about this more tomorrow, but currently I'm thinking about combining aspects of D&D Encounters, Lair Assault, and Phil "The Chatty DM" Menard's Level 0 rules.

Skills without Dice

Monte talked a bit more about his skill system in the new Legends & Lore column, Very Perceptive. Here's an extended example of how I think the proposed word-rank system would work. For this example, I'm assuming a D&D game that only has 10 levels and is a bit more "gritty." This means the difficulty to perform certain tasks might be higher than what we currently expect from a game such as 4e.

Diceless Skill Challenge

Background: The adventurers are trying to take a shortcut into the dungeon they heard about from a kobold they interrogated.

Scene: The smell hits you before you see the tunnel's exit. The sickly sweet smell of decaying garbage and bodies attacks your nostrils. As you exit the tunnel, you notice the object of your search, the door the kobold told you about, the one that gives you access to the secret passageways around the dungeon. Between you and it however, are 30' of vertical rock, made smooth and slick by generations of garbage dumping, and a few other creatures who wouldn't mind a nice helping of fresh meat.

Challenges:
Sheer wall: Expert Athletics
Monsters: Trying to climb the wall while the monsters are about adds a rank to any attempt to get to the door.

Example Solution:
The party decides to deal with the monsters first. They don't have to kill them. If they can put them to sleep or otherwise make them stop fighting, that works too. That reduces the climbing challenge back down to Expert Athletics.

The fighter in the party has an Expert level Athletics skill. He climbs the wall, using the rope and pitons to make it easier for the others to climb. That reduces the Athletics rank down to Journeyman.

The cleric and thief both have Athletics trained at a Journeyman level. They would just climb up the rope but the wizard is only at Novice level. The thief decides to craft a harness for the wizard. Once they all reach the top, they can lift him up. This reduces the climb to Novice level for the wizard. Everyone makes it to the top and no dice were rolled. Just as importantly, no one had to play a game of read the DM's mind to find out there was a secret door or an invisible staircase if you did just the right thing.

If I wrote this system or used it at my table, I would say that whenever the group came upon the same or very similar challenge, they would automatically succeed. As Dean, pointed out on Twitter, Mouse Guard has a similar mechanic.

What do the ranks mean in DC terms?

I find it easier to think of the ranks on a d100 level rather than a d20. We have five ranks: novice, journeyman, expert, master and grandmaster. There's also impossible but that's supposed to be like going to 110%. So if we spread the ranks out evenly, novice is 1-19, journeyman is 20-39, etc. If we use the system Mearls discussed, meaning you had to roll a 15 to succeed on a check of your rank, then to roll a check for the level above yours would be 15 + 20 or 35. It would be pretty rare for someone to have enough modifiers in their current level to make that check and it would result in us adding large numbers together on a pretty consistent basis. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but that's what I think Monte's system is supposed to reflect.

Reintroducing Rolls

While I happen to prefer less dice rolling, I understand it's not for everyone. However, we could introduce dice rolling back in. My suggestion would be the following. Keep the DC 15 number for checks of your level. Add 5 skill slots to each skill. Have your primary and secondary score, class, and maybe race automatically fill in one slot each rank associated with that item, such as rogues get 1 for thievery. Magic items, rewards from quests or particular challenges, and the like provide other training. Each slot corresponds to a +3 modifier to a check of the same level. When all 5 slots in a skill are filled, you increase your training in that skill by one rank. You lose the bonuses provided by magic items and the like, but keep inherent bonuses. (A downside would be trying to deal with rapid increases in one skill.) If you want to try for one level higher than your current skill, you have to roll a 19 without any modifiers, giving you a 10% chance.

Other Ways to Reward Skill Training

Let's say the group wants to search through the garbage before they continue on to see if they find any treasure. We could create a random table of stuff, let's say using a d20.

1-5 15 coppers
6-10 10 silvers
11-15 5 gold
16-18 10 gold
19 20 gold
20 40 gold

For each rank you have in a skill, you get 1 roll of the d20. The results can be cumulative, meaning you get each item you roll for or the rolls could create a list from which you may pick 1 item. I'm not sure which is better and this might be a place where the DM gets to change depending on the situation.

Skills and Optimization

Over the weekend I posted an article showing the skill distribution for the two Essentials players books. I added some quick analysis along with a statement that I intended to delve a bit deeper. Today I'd like to discuss why I think the current skills system leads people to be optimizers.

The Core Mechanic Encourages Optimization

In 4e, the books describe the core mechanic of the game, "the most important rule," as the following:

1. Roll a d20. You want to roll high!
2. Add all relevant modifiers.
3. Compare the total to a target number. If your result equals or exceeds the target number, the check is a success. Otherwise, it's a failure.

When I run games for new players, I'm told to explain this core mechanic. It explicitly sets up a situation where there is a binary success/failure and where players will feel the need to optimize. While there are always exceptions, such as DM-given bonuses for roleplaying, regardless of the table you play at, this is the assumed base experience.

So, if that informs the base of what you know about the game, it's reasonable to assume that a player likely will pick skills that align with the character's better abilities, the ones that give the largest bonus, especially when he or she has no idea how those skills might be used in the game itself. After all, what's important is that we roll high.

I'm a Star at Something, Right?

Even if that wasn't the core mechanic, I don't think it's particularly radical to suggest that people who sit down for the first time might pick skills based on what their character is innately good at. When I started out, I had no idea if history was going to be more useful to me than bluff (not that I necessarily had access to both of those skills), but I did know what my character was likely to be good at and just said she was also likely to be interested in learning more about those things. Also, it seems typical that players might want to differentiate their characters in a particular area. We're playing heroes after all. For instance:

  • "Thadeous has the gift of a silver tongue and the personality to milk it for all its worth." (Diplomacy)
  • "Serena's parents love to tell the story of how she walked across the laundry line to visit her friend at age 3. They knew she was a natural for the royal circus." (Acrobatics)

If everyone in a hero groups has basically the same set of skills and about the same abilities in them, what makes them unique? What would Leverage look like if all five of them were hitters? What would the Fellowship of the Ring look like if they were all wizards or rangers? Furthermore, if we are to have class skill lists, they should make it easier, not harder, to create a hero. Why auto-assign certain skills if the class isn't particularly good at the related ability, as in the case of the warpriest? But if we look at those distributions, we can see that by design it's harder to do that for some classes.

How Might Word-Based Ranks Help?

This natural inclination towards optimization, reinforced by the core mechanic, is one of the biggest reasons I like the idea of moving to word based ranks for skills. I personally would love to get away from worrying about +2 bonuses here and -1 penalties there. In my opinion, they often clutter our feat and magic item lists with these small opportunities to move the needle in one direction or the other for too small of an overall gain. Small increases in attack precision make a lot more sense given the small differences in defenses between levels. I don't think the same is true with skills. I'm not sure about the rest of the rules in that column, such as when you may roll, but I think that's a better discussion for later.

When Might Skill Clumping Be Counter-Productive?

Unlike combat, the roleplaying portion of 4e doesn't provide a way of moving the spotlight from player to player. Trying to enforce an initiative-order like system on this part of the game can make the story stilted and unnatural. In my experience, the lack of tools for moving the spotlight around makes it very easy for a player to fall out of the game during role-playing and skill challenges, especially shy or reserved players. If a character doesn't have a special skill to contribute, I think this makes it even more likely that unless the player has an internal reason for wanting to be part of it, such as enjoying play-acting or storytelling, the player will tune out. This isn't necessarily bad, not everyone enjoys this part of the game, but I think the current skills distribution can lead to this behavior in players who might otherwise enjoy role playing. As with just about anything, DM skill can overcome this.

In addition, just like certain damage keywords, some skills are more valuable than others. While this will vary from group to group, in general, heavy use of acrobatics, bluff, thievery and streetwise in skill challenges, traps, and other skill rolls may cause the spotlight to shine much more often on certain players versus others.

When Might Skill Clumping be Productive?

For some skills, we might want a number of characters competent in them. For tasks that come up often in the game, but not in a way that really spotlight's a particular character's talents, we might want a number of the people in the party to use the same skill. Perhaps they are trying to convince the hermit wizard that they aren't going to run off with his expensive magic item that will be useful in tracking down the evil goblin king who is attacking the town.

Some Ideas to Help

I've written a fair bit already, but I want to point out some tools that can help. I will write more in the future about this.

Scenes

What some games do to move the spotlight around is to break the game down into scenes and having each scene have a subset of the characters present. For some groups, we could have multiple scenes taking place across the city at the same time. Perhaps one team is off trying to pass off a forged letter while another is gathering information in a bar. Even within one room we could have multiple scenes going. Perhaps a grate high up in the wall could provide the group with information of what's in the next room while another group could be investigating some runes on the floor.

The emphasis should be that the people in a particular scene should rely on their own skills and the skills used should be driven by role play. Yes, this can mean splitting the party during these parts of the game. If you keep each scene short and provide easy ways for the characters to escape any combat, this should be fine.

Non-binary Checks

Not all checks need to be binary in nature. The result doesn't have to indicate success or failure. Instead, it could represent degree of success. Let's say you're in a treasure room when someone, I'm not going to name names Mr McStealy, triggers a trap that causes the ceiling to begin descent. The DM can ask you to make a check to see how much treasure you escape with and the number you roll indicates the amount of success. Everyone will want to make this check regardless of their modifier. It's fun and we get to roll some dice. Not all non-binary checks need to be fun but they need to mean something to the players and/or their characters.

Ok, more later. But for now, I have to get some food. :)

Essentials Skill Survey

I've been thinking a lot about the 4e skills system, especially between the announcement of Monte Cook rejoining the WotC R&D team and the two Legends & Lore articles: Skills in D&D and Difficulty Class Warfare. With the two articles, there are things I liked in them and things I didn't. I tried for four days to write a post about my thoughts on both of those systems and I found I couldn't write it. Why? Because there were problems in the current system I often felt but couldn't explain.

Both as a player and as a DM, I've felt that 4e classes often step on each other's toes when it comes to skill use. The number of people at the table with approximately the same modifier to a skill makes it hard as a DM to allow a player to shine. It gets especially bad when the skill is something that's seen as iconic to the character, such as the skills that are automatically trained for a particular class.

In addition, I played a slayer in a recent campaign and found the character awesome tactically but I basically withdrew whenever we tried to do roleplaying. I really didn't understand why until I looked into the skill distribution for Essentials characters.

So why look at only at Essentials characters? Well, these are the books that are evergreen, they should always be available at the hobby shop or the bookstore. We are also told that these are the on-ramp to D&D for new players. In addition, they should have gotten it right by this point. I cut earlier books a lot of slack because I realize how much 4e was a shift from previous ways of playing and creating the game. Finally, they are the simplest form of the game. We don't have to worry about the further complications of backgrounds or themes as they don't appear in the books.

Class Number of Trained Skills at 1st Level Automatically Assigned Skills Class Skills List Size Overlap with Primary Ability Overlap with Secondary Ability
Mage 3 1* 7 3 0/3/1**
Knight 3 0 5 1 1
Warpriest 3 1 6 2 0
Thief 4 2* 10 3 1/3**
Slayer 3 0 5 1 0
Hunter 4 1 8 2 4
Cavalier 4 0 8 1 2
Sentinel 3 1* 9 4 1
Hexblade 4 0 9 2 2/0**
Scout 4 1 8 2 2

* This automatically assigned skill aligns with the class's primary ability.
** These classes have multiple suggested secondary abilities.

What this table tells me is that some classes are forced to pick suboptimal skills due to the class skills available to the class but this forced choice isn't standardized across classes. This is particularly prominent among the strong melee character classes knight, slayer, and cavalier. They all have the same skill that aligns with their primary ability, Athletics. So if you have two of the three in a party, it will be harder to make them shine through an Athletics skill check. (I am making the assumption that players will tend to pick skills that align with primary or secondary abilities, it's possible that most new players will pick what sounds interesting.)

Skill Total Number of Classes with Access Aligns with Class's Primary Ability Aligns with Class's Secondary Ability* Total with Likely Low Ability Modifiers**
Acrobatics 3 3 0 0
Arcana 4 1 0 3
Athletics 7 3 1 3
Bluff 2 1 0 1
Diplomacy 5 0 2 3
Dungeoneering 4 0 3 1
Endurance 6 0 2 4
Heal 7 2 2 3
History 5 1 0 4
Insight 6 2 1 3
Intimidate 5 1 2 2
Nature 4 1 3 0
Perception 4 1 2 1
Religion 4 1 0 3
Stealth 4 3 1 0
Streetwise 3 1 1 1
Thievery 2 1 1 0

* Three classes have multiple secondary abilities.
** The total classes minus the ones with primary or secondary abilities. Since some classes have multiple suggested secondary abilities, this number might be slightly off.

What this table tells me is that some skills are better as general challenges to the party. For instance, there's likely to be someone trained in Athletics or Heal. It also shows why Endurance is often a dump skill. It's on the class list for 6 of the 10 classes, but only 2 classes suggest Constitution as a secondary ability. On the other end of the spectrum are thievery, bluff, and streetwise. Few classes offer those skills but for the ones that do, it's often a good way to help that character shine.

Now, I'm not suggesting that they should have made a big chart and ensured they filled in all the boxes. What I am suggesting is that this should be more apparent to DMs when they create or modify adventures for their table. I hope to write more about this soon.

EDIT: A chart I should probably make is class roles to skills but that's a task for another day.

Send + More = Money

In honor of Speak Out With Your Geek Out, I'd like to talk about some geeky things that mean a lot to me, regardless of their direct application to gaming. For today, that topic will be math puzzles. My love of math and science started pretty early. I have an insatiable appetite for learning, something I share with the rest of my family. We would spend hours watching what my dad called "weird shows," documentaries, news and other thinking programs. We also did a lot of experiments and fixed a lot of the stuff we owned ourselves by checking out repair manuals from the library. My mom worked on circuit boards in the factory she worked at and she definitely knew how to program the VCR. We did not have the flashing clock problem in our household.

While I loved many math and science based activities, my favorites were verbal arithmetic and logic puzzles. The first time I remember learning about verbal arithmetic puzzles was in the book Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School. Yes, I was the geek who bought books like that for fun from Scholastic Press. (I may even have skipped lunch somedays so I could afford them. Please don't tell my parents.) I loved these puzzles because they were the first time I was shown a new way to do math. Until now, I was used to being taught how to do math. You do operations on two numbers to get a third, memorize these multiplication tables, remember to carry the 1, etc.

With puzzles like Send + More = Money, the game changed. Now I had to figure out how to solve the problem and then solve it. What do we know about the limits of adding two numbers together that will tell me what M represents? Once we know M, what can we guess about S and O? For me, it reinforced patterns between numbers and provided a framework for attacking new problems. I couldn't get enough. When I found out the 8th grade teacher who taught in the room before our class was giving similar puzzles to his students, I begged him to give them to me too and handed them in the next morning every time.

Logic puzzles hold a similar place in my heart. I particularly loved logic grid puzzles because I enjoyed writing out the grid and filling in the possibilities. They helped me analyze what was being said and play with numbers. They made the topics less abstract, which for me is a great thing.

I credit these puzzles with helping me attain a lot of things that aren't immediately obvious. Many of the approaches I used for solving logic and verbal arithmetic puzzles I repurposed for taking multiple choice tests. The usefulness of such tests in the education system is a different debate, but I know I did well on them in part because I approached them the way I would a puzzle. As soon as I was reasonably sure an answer could not be correct, I crossed it off. If I wasn't sure I could answer the question right away, I moved on to the next one. They also helped me organize my thoughts and showed me new ways of thinking about topics I had thought to be relatively straightforward. I'm sure getting experience with symbols in the place of numbers or words helped me later learn to program and the steps I developed to solve the puzzle are basically algorithms.

Oh and if you want to use these puzzles in your game, they could be used in a number of ways. Puzzles like Send + More = Money can be used to figure out exactly how many coins need to be placed on the balance in order to open the door. Or a sage might ask the group to solve a logic puzzle before revealing a huge hint to them.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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