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.

Gender and the Bariaur

Recently Jeremy from the Stormin' Da Castle blog sent me an email. In it, he requested my advice for a project he was working on, updating some of the Planescape races for 4e. In particular, he wanted my opinions on updating the bariaur, a race that had different mechanics depending on gender.

Truthfully, I always get a little nervous when I get requests like this. I love D&D and want to be as respectful as possible to its rich traditions and heritage. However, I sometimes have a problem with how gender and biological sex were handled in the past. To me, this makes it a complex issue.

First, a little info on the bariaur. I don't have any information outside of what Jeremy provided in his email, so if I'm missing a critical bit of information, please let me know. My understanding is that they are a race of half ram, half human. Males were stronger and had a ram ability, apparently on the account of their horns. Females were smarter and had magic resistance. Below is my response, modified a bit to fit into a blog post rather than an email discussion.

So how would I approach this? On one hand, sexual dimorphism varies widely across species in the real world, and we might expect the same among races in a fantasy world. How cultures deal or don't deal with gender is a common theme for highlighting differences between them. And, for me, the big concern is how the overall product deals with gender rather than one particular race or culture. If the vast majority push all male or female characters in one particular direction, I start feeling constrained by the setting a way that's often uncomfortable for me.

On the other hand, some people are sensitive to gender differences that occur along the lines of men use brawn, women use brains and magic. Even if the work itself isn't sexist, it's a trigger for some people.

I know there is also the argument that why pick gender if it's not important in the mechanics. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of making gender part of mechanics because there is still a wide amount of variation within gender. I mean, when we discuss a gender, we're often talking about half of the population. And when we discuss PCs, we are talking about characters who break out of the expectations of their societies.

That said, I think there is a solid story reason here and it being one race out of a number (I'm assuming at least), I don't see a problem with carrying it through. Especially since a fair amount of the audience might really like that about the race (I don't know that for sure, just throwing out that there are always other concerns to balance against).

What I might do in this situation is find one common ability to bump up and then have strength or constitution and intelligence be the set players choose between. Then I would set up two main groups within the society. One group would get the charge racial ability and, in the fluff, I would describe the order of the ram. I wouldn't exclude women from the group, but make it clear that it's a mostly male group. Then I would have the other group that is typically formed from women. This way, if a player really wants to fight against the norms of the society, the rules don't forbid it, but I think we've respected the history of the race.

It turns out that Jeremy had already decided to do the ability bumps as I suggested. Check out his conversion of the bariaur. He is very kind to call me an expert, but I don't really see myself this way. I'm just passionate and willing to share my opinions.

A Game of One's Own

Over the weekend, I started thinking about what type of game I would really like to play. Personally, I love faerie stories and love to play characters that swing a sword, so it's likely to have some of those elements to it. I also enjoy fostering creative solutions to problems. Just because I can solve problem x by using a sword doesn't mean I want to feel like that's the only way to solve it. So I came up with some brief thoughts. All of this is subject to change, but thinking it through helps me learn. This is mainly a thought/learning exercise.

While I understand why D&D uses character abilities such as intelligence, wisdom, charisma, etc to define the base of the character, I don't feel the need to keep that in my game. This isn't meant to be a war game and, to me at least, those abilities don't help new players understand their characters.

What I'm considering right now is the following. Have sources of power such as nature, martial, empathy, faith and academics/arcane. Instead of forcing a rigid class structure, all characters start with 1 base source and then they can climb the skill tree for that base source, pulling in skills from other source trees (similar to Civ's tech tree). So, if I want to be a druid, I would want to pick a lot of skills from nature and empathy. The skills would be similar to 4e powers but they would build on each other.

Like 4e, overall damage output would be tied to character level, not how they've progressed through the tree. My hope is that this would allow generalists and specialists in the same game, but it's way too early to know if that's possible. Individual skills might increase that damage or augment attacks in other ways, such as increasing the radius of a fireball attack. Other skills might increase defense or give PCs the ability to solve conflicts using non-violent means.

Finally, I really like 4e's system of HP and healing surges. I plan to modify it a bit though. HPs would still represent more or less physical health, but healing surges would become your overall drive or desire to continue on. When a character runs out of desire, he or she can be persuaded to give up the fight. In particular, I like this for NPCs. While it can be done by giving a different explanation of HP, I like thought that characters could "attack" in a non-violent way and that the mechanics reinforce the separation. Perhaps a bard's song really could cause people to put down their swords. Also, separating them means that some characters would be easier to defeat with non-violent means while others would require battle.

Empathy is a big change for me. I love it so much better than charisma. One of the paths I'm envisioning is learning plant lore (maybe a tie in to potion making), plant empathy (communicate with plants and get information from them), and then some sort of plant request skill so you can do things like ask trees or vines to grab and restrain enemies.

That's where I'm at so far.

A Moment in the Sun

Here there be ThunderCats spoilers.

In the episode "Journey to the Tower of Omens," the ThunderCats found the outer entrance to the temple where the ancients hid the Book of Omens. The Book of Omens is a powerful artifact in Thundera's mythology. In fact, the other animals often attacked Thundera trying to obtain it for themselves. The ancients took the book and built a temple to house it. In addition to secrecy, they protected the tower by providing a series of trials to test those seeking it.

The trials are a great example of providing opportunities for each character to shine (and sometimes to cause trouble).

  • Snarf accidentally uncovers the outer opening by following his stomach.
  • They are presented with a large locked door. Thousands of keys hang from the ceiling. When Cheetara tries the first key she finds, she triggers the trap. The bridge over the spike pit retracts. WilyKat saves them by picking the lock.
  • They come to a long hallway and Panthro triggers a pressure plate by stepping on it. This triggers a blade attack that almost cuts him. Cheetara saves the day by using her incredible speed to race through the trap and hit the kill switch on the opposite end.
  • Next they come to a room with a pool in the middle. In the bottom of the pool is gold. WilyKat and WilyKit go for it, being thieves after all, which triggers the water trap. They see a grate at the top of the room and try to tread water until they can reach it. Unfortunately, Panthro can't swim. He goes under. While Lion-o tries to save him, he needs to turn back when he runs out of air. When Panthro hits the bottom, he sees another way out and ends up saving all of them.
  • When they get through the outer temple, they get to a doorway that opens to a cliff. Lion-o is finally able to use the Sword of Omens to see and it reveals the bridge trigger to him. However, he can't reach it. Tygra saves the day by using his whip.

One of the problems I often run into at my table is providing a way for each character to shine (and get into trouble). After years of having DMs use personality traits and "weaknesses" to screw over their characters, I've seen and heard a lot of players who are resistant to providing these. My players tend to prefer the same subset of skills so allowing them to differentiate along those lines is also difficult. And, I tend to forget to collect them information from them and keep it in one place, so my adventures aren't as tailored as they could be to the differences they do have.

One could argue that other systems are better about this because they either provide more skills or restrict a number of skills to particular classes. There are a few downsides to both of these. First, with longer skill lists, I think it's important to tell the players which skills are likely to be useful in the campaign. I'm not comfortable with having a player put a ton of points or ranks into a skill that is utterly useless in the campaign, such as something for sailing in a landlocked game or nature in a dungeon crawl. Once we limit the list, we are back to the same issue again.

Limiting by class forces some players to play a class they have no interest in to satisfy the needs of the party. Personally, that really bugs me. I know it has a long history in D&D, but it's just not my style and it adds a whole host of problems of its own. What happens when the shining moment for a particular character happens after he is unconscious? What if the thief dies in room 2 but the locked door is in room 5? Everyone needs to leave the dungeon and then hire or find a new thief? That's not my style.

If the group is ok with it, I think this is when group party creation can really shine. For skills, we can either set up one primary in the group or provide some background to the character to differentiate how each character uses that skill. We should still have good skill coverage even if one character goes down or her player isn't present. If two people really need to be trained in arcana, perhaps one is more of a knowledge person (like the wizard) and the other has an innate sense of how magic works and is able to create counter-spells on the spot (like a sorcerer). The exact specifics would come down to what the group negotiated.

Then it would be the DM's responsibility to make sure there are challenges tailored for each. If you are going ask them to roll to do it, it's important to ensure that failure won't stop the forward progress of the story. It could add or remove something from the story or force them to seek another alternative. Also, sometimes it makes sense to limit the test to only one character. Sometimes, even if the untrained fighter rolls a 20 on an arcana check, he shouldn't be able to close the portal to the abyss.

And then if the players are willing to provide weaknesses, adding elements to the story that would pull on them to decide between indulging their weakness or turning against it could be fun. If they indulge a weakness, I would add a complication to the story, such as triggering a trap, but provide a benefit. I'm not sure what benefits I would give yet, because some of them should be useful outside of combat. That means just offering action points doesn't exactly help.

In addition, I would make sure the challenges helped particular characters shine or make sure they all can shine in some way. In my experience from running Learn to Plays, a number of players are afraid to do things like stealth around to get an advantage before a battle because some of the characters have no stealth. The result is that a number of skills lie unused because the group thinks they all have to succeed on it to make it work. If the players preemptively decide to not use skills because they are useless in a party situation and we only present party situations, then what's the point? Perhaps the ranger can sneak up to a window before the battle to get a nice perch for ranged attacks? Or the rogue can sneak to the other side of the room to make gaining combat advantage easier?

These are just some quick thoughts. How do you give the characters a chance to shine in your game?

Killed by a House Cat

I've noted my dislike of fragile player characters before. For me, I just don't have the time and patience to get that level of system mastery. Overall, I'm personally much more interested in learning how to develop an interesting story. However, I know lots of people out there love them. In episode 5 of the Girl on Guy podcast by Aisha Tyler, Zachary Levi (of Chuck fame) gives one of the best explanations of what he loves about them. The conversation starts at around the 54 minute mark. He really misses Ghost Recon because the fragility of the character (one shot could kill you) forced you to depend on your teammates and work on strategy. His description of his first time playing Ghost Recon is really awesome.

Now I admit, I think he's right. When characters don't die easily and when they don't have to go beyond themselves to get things done, it's hard to get the players to do anything other than fight. When they do fight, it's generally in an overly bold manner. In D&D, unless the entire party is built around stealthy characters, this usually means the fighter kicks open the door and someone says something along the lines of "Let's do this." Now, this can be a lot of fun, but after game 10 of the same style I know I'm left craving something a little more.

I don't think you need to weaken the characters to change this. One reason why weakened characters push people towards strategic play is because there is a consequence to the bold style of play. It's likely to get your character killed. But we could provide other consequences instead, hopefully aligned to the sensibilities and goals of the players and their characters.

That's the hard part though. While, weakened characters work across games, genres, and settings, rewards for thoughtful play vary wildly, require player buy-in, and rely on GM skill. How do provide these consequences without creating a railroad or making them too arbitrary? How do you get player buy in? How do you get new players into the game without making them feel like sidekicks or n00bs? Lots of games have their own solutions for these and related questions, everything from cooperative world building before or during the game like Dresden Files to the beliefs system in Burning Wheel. It's this area of game design and play that has my attention right now. I don't have any answers yet, just questions.

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