Categories
ttrpgs

the post-pandemic roundup: in person vs online

So it feels like the pandemic is winding down, and everyone’s returning to a way that things were before. When I say this, I don’t mean that the actual virus is in check, oh no, but that people are doing more things and the UK government is allowing you to do them. It seems fairly likely that, come this winter, we’ll be in a similar situation of some form of lockdown — but until then, restaurants are open, people are travelling (locally at least), and schedules are again filled with crap that make scheduling nigh on impossible. For this reason, it felt like a good opportunity to do a retrospective on what’s been going on RPG-wise for the last year and a bit, and to elucidate my thoughts on the age old debate of playing RPGs online vs in-person. Ultimately, this decision is made by circumstance (you’re not playing in-person regularly with someone from another country), but I am lucky enough to be able to choose from time to time, and had a long span of doing things in person which was followed by the pandemic.

Like any good school essay, I’ll give you the summary of my points at the start so that you know what to expect. For all of the tools I’ve got, all of the equipment, the microphone, the software: an innumerable number of things to make playing online as high quality as it can be, there is still something fundamentally missing from the experience, which I think online play will never satisfy. While there are several delightful advantages, which I will mention in this post, I would choose to play in-person for the majority of systems where it was possible. Cool. With that out of the way, I can talk about why I think this.

A Player at the Table

There is something that feels like an inconsistency in my opinions of GMing, but I think is consistent. This probably requires a blog post of its own, but I like to think of my style as the “computational GM” — a rules-bounded method that is fundamentally reactionary. For me, I like to think of the GM as the engine by which the game is played, with all of the limitations and requirements of an engine for a videogame, or a car. A driving force that exhibits only enough control to move things forward, but does not decide direction. It’s a car analogy. While the responsibilities of the GM differ from the players in this way, that does not mean that the GM cannot have fun. It also, critically, does not mean that the GM is somehow ‘above’ the players. The engine of a car is a critical component, without which the car cannot function — but there are many other parts that also fit that description. Just as you cannot play a game of D&D5e without a GM (though someone has probably tried), you cannot play it without players either1. The most toxic environments I’ve seen for RPGs have been ones where the GM believes themselves to be some sort of god, author, or puppetmaster whose role it is to steer the players into the ‘correct’ way of playing their game. The game belongs to everyone at the table, and the GM is a player in the game as well, just with a different role.

Why am I talking about this? Well, I think playing online reinforces this GM-first viewpoint. It can feel like you’re sat in the seat of a control room, pulling levers and pressing buttons, watching a swarm of rats scurry through a maze. In a lot of online play, I’ll be spending time futzing with the software, getting it to play the sounds that I want, or leafing through character sheets and inspecting stats. The game feels less like a collaborative storytelling experience, and more like a videogame that I am in control of. I can place virtual walls and boundaries, and if you find a way of scaling that wall in the game, it is only (literally) by my hand that your token finds its way onto the other side. If I wanted to delete your character, I need only press delete on it and poof — it is gone. Does it need to be this way? Of course not, you could choose to use no software at all. Sit in a discord channel and theatre of the mind everything, have the players roll their own dice, but then we have a problem of engagement which I will touch on later. It’s a strange feeling, and this might sound like the ramblings of a madman, but I feel less like a GM and more like a sysadmin at times. I’m managing the software, trying to keep things streamlined for my users, making sure they’re not roaming around in places they shouldn’t be. To me, it feels a bit perverse.

When sat at the table, the only artifact of the GM’s primacy is a GM screen — and a lot of people will eschew that entirely. The ‘canvas’ here is the imaginations of everyone sat at the table — a shared creative space that everyone can have their own nuances and understanding of. The canvas for me online, is FoundryVTT. Maybe this is completely bouncing off you, and you’re thinking to yourself “These feel like limitations of software, not of the online component”, and you might be right, but I think the manifest spatial difference is important. At the table, people have faces. The GM is sat right there, with only a piece of card to divide them (if that). This is a space that is shared by board games, by dinners, by casual conversations. It’s a space of equals, and I think it’s something missing from the online experience.

Memory Limits

this is the first, last, and only time I will ever use this meme format I swear

I used to be brave. I created rooms, locations, spaces that were only constrained by what I could think up. When it came to game-time, I’d find some way of representing that space with the tools I had. Empty battlemats with squares, some absolute guff plastic tokens to represent furniture that I had in every rooms, Pathfinder Pawns and marker pens. This was my arsenal, and with it, I would find a way. The fact that these tools are so limited meant, ironically, that I never felt constrained. What I would show in the physical space with my tokens would be so far removed from the mental image that I wanted to share with the players, that I never felt the need for it to be realistic or even passable. If I wanted something to be a really big setpiece, I’d pick up some specific physical artifacts for it and that’d be a little treat. Otherwise, who cares? I trust my players to imagine the world as we’re describing it, and the physical tokens are just there to remind people of distances and enemy types. Were the enemy types properly represented by the tokens? Absolutely not — while the Pathfinder Pawns selection is extensive, it’s not exhaustive, and there were plenty of occasions when I wanted seven skeletons but only had five tokens. Guess I’ll just have to make do!

I used to be brave. Now I can’t play out a scene unless I’ve spent a couple of hours mapping it out. It’s so easy for me to make absolutely satisfactory maps with the innumerable mapping tools that I have, that god forbid we do something that isn’t mapped. You want to what? No, you can’t go to the Forest of Kelem’Dir, I haven’t spent four hours mapping it out and writing the journal entries in FoundryVTT yet. I’ll spend ages agonizing over the tokens, making sure the image is just right — after all, there’s such a selection of images on Google that one of them has to satisfy my relentless requirements. Suddenly, the space described on the screen is no longer just a mechanical aid, it becomes the space. I don’t need to use my imagination, my players don’t need to use their imaginations, and critically, the walls have been erected. “What happens if a token runs off the end of the board?” — strangely this was never a problem when it came to in person play. Everyone knew the boundaries of the physical space because you’re playing on a fucking table, but our imaginations weren’t limited to that. The Forest of Kelem’Dir wasn’t limited to a 30×30 grid, that’s just what we had for that engagement. Online though, why should I give you flowery and in-depth vocal descriptions? The map image is right there you know, just stare at it and accept it. Yes, that bush is real. No, those crates that I put there last time for a little encounter aren’t real, j-just ignore them.

I always laughed at how Critical Role was billed as being dynamic and an evolving story, but when they had encounters, Matt Mercer would bring out the most elaborate and hand-crafted of terrain pieces. It felt a bit like a food show, where they want to convince the audience that they’re cooking things off the cuff, but the chef keeps producing premade flans and yelling “STRANGE COINCIDENCE THAT I JUST HAPPENED TO MAKE THIS EARLIER”. I wondered to myself, if they did something truly bizarre, would Matt just bring out the felt tips and plastic sheet? Now look at me. That’s what I’ve become — I have to be pre-prepared for every encounter, and if I’m not, I’ll just try and steer things away from that. Otherwise, what will my players be looking at in FoundryVTT? An empty grid? After the dozens of maps that I’ve just thrown at them? How horrid! No, no the Forest of Kelem’Dir will just have to wait.

Obviously, there are plenty of people that play online and just use the most basic of tools to represent spaces. This could very well be a ‘me’ problem, but I’ve heard similar points from other online GMs. Things like the line of sight/walls feature in FoundryVTT feel fantastic when you start using them, but they funnel you down a certain direction. To use line of sight, you need to have walls. To use walls, you need to have a map, and to have a decent map with those walls on it, you probably need to have done it beforehand as the tools are a bit too finicky to do on the fly. You’re certainly going to struggle to throw a map together in Dungeondraft in time for your players to walk through the door. Foundry is a great tool in a lot of ways, but it constrains as much as it gives, and that’s something that I’m beginning to understand more and more.

Waste the Motherfuckers

Ah yes, the big one. The eternal problem that has been a problem before online play. “One of my players keeps looking at their phone and forgetting what they’re doing until its their turn, and it takes forever. AITA for shooting them in the face with a glock 17?” Is engagement worse in online play? Absolutely yes. You’re playing at a computer (most likely), and you need to have a thing called The Internet. Sadly for us GMs, The Internet also provides things that aren’t just RPGs — but a myriad of entertaining, soul-stealing activities. Those are the things that your RPG needs to contend with for attention, and those things have been finely tuned over years and years to steal engagement. Who’s going to win: you, or the thing that the ICO tells you to worry about? Spoilers, probably not you, at least not all of the time. The worst part is that it only takes a short lapse for it to be very frustrating for everyone else at the table. 20 seconds of missed attention, and then you’ve got someone going “oh sorry was it my turn? What just happened?”. This feels like slamming the handbrake in a session, and if it happens repeatedly, then you’re in trouble. Did this happen in-person? Yes. However, there’s more of a social taboo about whipping out your phone and ignoring everyone else at a table. Plus, it’s far harder to ignore people when they’re sitting right there, possibly talking at you.

There’s another side of this which I think is very important. Much like the experience of working from home, playing RPGs on your computer can make it meld in with everything else. You close the application you use for playing other games/writing/whatever, and you open the application you use for RPGs. The lack of ceremony makes it seem incredibly pedestrian. Whereas in-person play makes certain demands. You have travel time, you have food, drinks, a sense of tactility to the whole experience. Usually when I DM, I’m running things at my house, but I have to do a fair amount of rearranging to get it to a state where we can play: so even for me, there is a procedure to getting into the ‘RPG-playing-mode’. These things are important because I think they force your brain to change gears in a significant way. It also breeds a level of commitment to the game — if you just travelled 30 mins to an hour to get somewhere, you’re less likely to want to fob it off in the moment. If you’re sat at your PC, using the same actions, peripherals, wearing the same stuff as you were for the previous hours of consciousness, you’re less likely to believe that this RPG game-playing time is special.

I would even go as far as to say this extends to the very mechanics of playing RPGs as well. Rolling a dice in person is a very exclusive action unless you’re a compulsive gambler. You are highly unlikely to be rolling dice for any other purpose other than playing a game. What about rolling a dice online? Hell, I use my keyboard and mouse for basically every waking moment of my life. If I’m “rolling a dice” using those tools, then that activity has entered the most pedestrian, commonplace group that I have. It’s not just the feel of the dice as a physical object, it’s how we’re engaging with them. Physical, on-paper character sheets can lend a level of value that characters in VTT platforms just don’t have. A player is more likely to care about a character that they’ve physically had to fill in a sheet for, and have a physical artifact representing, than a character that could be easily copy-pasted a thousand times. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to care about a character you created in a VTT platform, that argument would be utterly ridiculous, but it’s a question of what mode of playing encourages what behaviours?

Summer Eyes

I haven’t talked about the advantages of playing online really, because I think they’re going to be fairly obvious. You don’t get COVID, you’re able to play with people who are very far away, it’s easier to schedule, and you don’t need to have a large-ish room to do it. There’s plenty more that I’ve missed, but there’s just an insurmountable point against the online platform. Fundamentally, TTRPGs are an incredibly unique thing — there is nothing quite like them as an activity. At a time where we have incredible technology driving videogames to be more immersive, more engaging, and more realistic, people are STILL playing roleplaying games driven by their imaginations and some dice. More and more people join this group every day. This says to me that videogames do not scratch the itch for a TTRPG, and until we’re floating in shared-mind tanks, I don’t think they ever will. Something else that reinforces the uniqueness of TTRPGs is the difficulty of describing them to someone who has never played. It feels impossible to put it into words without missing some fundamental aspect of the experience — yes, there’s a level of improv and theatre, but it’s not quite that (and some people ignore that element entirely). Yes, we’re playing a game, but you can’t really win it (though some RPGs might define that state). Yes there’s rules, but they’re not rules in the same way that Monopoly has rules, they’re more like a framework for thinking (though some RPGs might define some very hard and fast rules with very strict action spaces).

The things that make TTRPGs unique and engaging are the things that make it hard for software to deal with them. Computers do not like vagueness, they do not handle grey areas well. This is slowly changing, but for the time being, the realm of the computable is the plane of the rigid. The lovely automation features that FoundryVTT brings are constraining and shackling play to try and enable computation. Yes you can have walls and line-of-sight, but there’s these limitations and restrictions on types of wall — and you better not have too many otherwise performance will tank. You can have maps to represent the space, but there’s size limitations and predefined grid types. These little things are slowly but surely whittling away what makes TTPRGs a joy to play. They live in that grey space of uncertainty, where only a human mind (for now) can properly explore, comprehend and express. Weirdly the thing that made me realise this was happening was a module for the Pathfinder 2e system in Foundry that meant you could click a button on an attack and have it roll the attack, check if AC was exceeded, roll damage, apply damage and resistances. Surely I should want this, right? All of these things are just mathematical paperwork that could be filed away to leave time for the proper decisions?

And yet…it feels wrong. The ceremony of stating “I’m going to attack the kobold”, rolling the dice, stating the outcome…it feels like it is more than just the mathematical computations being performed. When a player says what they’re going to do, rolls the dice, and tells us the outcome, it comes more across as what they are doing. They are responsible for the whole activity, with the GM telling them whether or not their activity has succeeded. Whereas with a VTT platform, it feels more like we’re asking the computer to do something for us. The players are spectators to the computation that the software does, and in some weird way, we’re no longer in full control of the game. We have an additional player, the computer, doing things as well. This is a weird ramble, but I can’t fully express why that level of automation seems to be ‘too far’. I don’t think I’m unique in this sentiment though. It feels like the freeform, maleable, imaginative gameplay has been constrained to a box for the purposes of automating the shit out of it. When that box is there, it becomes much harder to see past it, and your choices very quickly become limited to what the software allows, rather than what you actually want to do.

Obviously a lot of these criticisms are targeted specifically at the automation software that makes online play easier — if we are defining online play in terms of “you go on discord, roll dice in person and maybe share images occasionally”, these won’t apply. In that scenario though, the problem of engagement is the primary roadblock as it’s going to be difficult for some people to sit at their computer without visual stimulai to remain engaged. Anyway, this is all a fairly moot point, because most people won’t be playing online at the moment out of choice. Just wanted to write down my thoughts on it.

Footnotes

1 Such wisdom on this blog eh? You can’t play a game without players, put that on my gravestone. I’m the next Socrates.

Categories
ttrpgs

three obscure DM mistakes in fantasy RPGs

If there’s one thing that I can proudly say I’ve done in my ~10 years of near constant DMing, it’s horribly fail in almost every conceivable way. I’ve run terrible, unsatisfying sessions. I’ve created utterly uninspired settings, devoid of any character or pull. I’ve written massive character backstories for NPCs that players talk to for three minutes, then forget immediately. I’ve written less than a sentence of notes for locations that then became frequent stomping grounds. I’ve written mysteries with massive holes that needed patching on-the-fly, monsters where I’ve missed key statistics, and homebrew magic so ridiculous that it wasn’t worth the bytes it was stored in. I like to think, however, that through this process of constant failure, I’ve slowly honed my DM skills to the point that I avoid a lot of the common pitfalls — instead, plummeting into new and hitherto unexplored ones. This post, I’m going to talk about what obscure problems I’ve run into, and how to avoid them.


Perfect Failure, Perfect Success

You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.

Chinned Purple Man – Big Superhero Film

There is a very common meme in the RPG space, the meme of “wacky anecdotes from when people roll 20 or 1”. The story of the dwarf who rolls a natural 20 on a pit and convinces it to close up, that moment when your fighter rolls a natural one and buries his broadsword in an adjacent friendly wizard. These are funny anecdotes, but they’re also a terrible way to play a game. Unless the system you’re playing specifies extreme events from critical successes/failures, you probably shouldn’t add them. The reason for this is fairly simple — sure, it was highly entertaining when someone rolled a natural 20 on their acrobatics check, and gained the power of flight as a result, but what do you do when it happens again ten minutes later? The same again? A natural 20 occurs 5% of the time, which is pretty damned common in a dice-heavy game like D&D, Pathfinder, etc. If you’re having absolutely catastrophic things happen as a result of natural ones, then you need to be ready for this to occur several times a session.

Most systems dial back on the importance of rolling critical results. In contrast with common house rules, natural 20s on skill checks in D&D5e do not automatically succeed. If your bard is comically weak, then it doesn’t matter what they roll, they cannot lift an object that has a DC greater than 20 + their skill mod. In Pathfinder 2e, if you roll a natural 20 but your result is 10 below the DC, you’re still going to fail1. This might feel quite cruel, because rolling a maximum result on a dice is typically a momentous event, but it’s necessary to maintain the structure of the game. If a natural 20 guaranteed success on skill checks, then the dumbest moron in the land would have a 5% chance of being as knowledgeable than the smartest being on the planet. While this might be funny, and the vibe that you want for your game, you shouldn’t do it without heavy consideration. Games that have extensive house-ruled mechanics for criticals tend to degenerate into absolute nonsense — even when using the ‘official’ critical hit optional rules like the decks for Pathfinder 2e.

Even when it comes to regular failure, you should be careful to never have the outcome be immediately extreme (unless the system is balanced around this notion). If a failure on a Diplomacy roll means that the NPC will never speak to the player again, you’re going to be running out of NPCs by the end of the second session. I think the Climb rules in Pathfinder 2e illustrate this point very well.

I’ve always thought the move speed here is a bit too restrictive, but maybe that problem disappears after a few levels.

Wait a second, where’s the line for when you fail? There isn’t one, because failure in this instance simply means that the action is wasted. The character attempts to move across the incline, loses their footing for a moment, and stops moving. Only when you critically fail, do you actually begin to fall, and even then, Pathfinder 2e has additional rules to alleviate that. This doesn’t mean there’s no consequence for failing — the character wastes an action doing nothing in a game where action economy is extremely important.

For me, I’d summarise this whole point as being “don’t exaggerate success and failure from the result of a single dice roll”. Sure, if a character rolls consecutive critical failures when they’re attempting to move across a sheer drop, you can describe them slowly and painfully plummeting to their death. That’s the mechanical punishment for being incredibly unlucky. Singular results, however, shouldn’t mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things. A failure to Persuade an NPC means a joke that doesn’t land, or an argument they don’t fully agree with. A critical failure means a joke that offends them, or a nonsensical anecdote causing discomfort and difficulty with the conversation moving forwards: it doesn’t mean they immediately draw a crossbow and attempt to murder you in the street. Similarly, a critical success doesn’t mean they immediately abandon their life, swear themselves to your cause, and ask for your hand in marriage. Pathfinder 2e has additional caveats in conversation with the Request action: “Some requests are unsavory or impossible, and even a helpful NPC would never agree to them.

If you want a world where it’s possible to convince the queen to give the players all of her worldly possessions after one minute of conversation, that’s fine. With a campaign where absolute nonsense has a 5% chance of occurring every dice roll, just be ready for that game to have absolutely no structure after even a handful of sessions.

Old Man Henderson

The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.

Terry Pratchett, Diggers

In a lot of RPGs, when it comes to character creation there is an understood ‘tiering’ of skills and attributes. Usually, every system has some sort of ‘God Stat’ — a statistic that either demands having some points in for a functional character, or one that can have points piled into for good effect. When talking about the canonical fantasy attributes (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), the go-to example tends to be dexterity/agility, which has enjoyed a comfortable spot in almost every fantasy RPG. With skills, there’s a bit more variance, even within the traditional dungeoneering RPGs. I’d categorise skills roughly into the following categories of ‘god stats’.

The Physical

  • Ability to perceive (perception, spot hidden, listen)
  • Ability to sneak (stealth, disguise, hide)
  • Ability to move objects and yourself (athletics, acrobatics, dodge)
  • Ability to heal (medicine, first aid, surgery)

The Social

  • Ability to persuade (diplomacy, persuade, charm)
  • Ability to deceive (deception, lie, fast talk)
  • Ability to discern (insight, psychology, sense motive)

The Intellectual

  • Rarely applies, see below.

Now, you might completely disagree with my selection here. “Where are survival skills!” I hear you cry. “What about library use!” Yes, yes. I’ve missed out quite a few, more system specific skills/attributes to allow for it to be a more general list, but bear with me here. I think I would quite comfortably say that you need to have a party with points in these things for almost any campaign. If you try to play a D&D5e campaign with a party lacking a good Perception score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. If you try to play a Pathfinder 2e campaign with a party lacking a good medicine score, you’re largely going to have a bad time2. If you try to play a Call of Cthulhu campaign with a party lacking a good Persuade/Charm/Fast Talk score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. Obviously, all of these things have conceivable exceptions, but I think these are reasonable assumptions in the main.

So the question is: why are these skills so valuable, or even required? My answer to this would be: because these skills are the ones that emerge ‘thoughtlessly’ in the course of play. If you have a world with societies and NPCs of note, then the character’s ability to interact with those NPCs is going to arise. If you have a world with dungeons (in the broadest sense of the word), then the character’s ability to scrutinise, navigate and manipulate that dungeon is going to arise. With ‘intellectual’ skills, RPGs tend to rely entirely on the player using their wits to solve puzzles or mysteries. Mostly the closest you’ll get to a ‘solve the thing’ skill is something like the investigation skill in D&D5e, or the Idea Roll in Call of Cthulhu 7e. As such, the ‘intellectual’ category lacks the god skills that the other categories have.

Now you’re wondering, “where’s the common DM mistake?”. The existence of ‘god-skills’ implies the existence of…normal skills. Skills that aren’t guaranteed to be useful for a campaign, things like Performance, Religion, or History. These are skills that are mostly taken for flavour purposes, rather than them serving a definite mechanical purpose. If you’re playing a cleric, you’re going to have a (relatively) high Religion skill. The common DM mistake is to think that it’s solely the player’s responsibility to introduce ways for these obscure skills to come up in play. It is not. It is the DM’s as well. The DM should be using the character sheets as inspiration for content — almost like a food menu at a restaurant. If a player has an extremely high Lore (Circus) score (yes, that is a suggested lore in PF2e), it’s utterly absurd to believe that the player can reasonably bring that about by themselves. Instead, as the DM, you should be looking for an opportunity to introduce that check. Maybe the party is assaulted by an aggressor, who moves in a way distinctive to a travelling show? With Lore (Alcohol), perhaps the party stumbles across a disguised noble, who’s drinking a beverage far too rich for their supposed station. If a player’s investigator has a hefty score in Accounting, put them in a situation where reading important financial documents gives them a minor clue for moving forwards.

This does not mean you need to have progression locked behind an iron gate marked “Knowledge of 15th Century Architecture”. It means that you should read your player’s character sheets, and identify opportunities to introduce content that you would not otherwise have thought of. Perception will come up on its own, social skills will come up on their own, but you need to work for the rest. I guarantee however, that when you introduce the obscure lore check that a player put points into, they will love you for it. It’ll be even funnier when they fail that check. In addition, it leads to a considerably richer experience when the players are doing something other than rolling the same five extremely frequent checks, and get to think about the (usually) more minor parts of their character.

Hootsby, the Level 17 Pigeon

What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Videogame RPGs like World of Warcraft or Divinity: Original Sin 2 have set a fairly ugly precedent when it comes to NPC/creature design in a levelled environment. I’ll give you a specific example of this problem: both games have settlements/civilisation that they expect the player to frequently visit for things like services, repairs, buying magic items, etc. However, in DOS2’s case, they don’t want you to be able to just murder the whole town and steal all the items, otherwise it’d lead to a horrible imbalance in favour of the players. In WoW’s case, they don’t want players from opposing factions to be able to easily rampage through the town, murdering all the NPCs and preventing other players from interacting with them. So there’s two immediate approaches here: you could flat-out prevent players from interacting with NPCs in that way, removing their agency and preventing them from imbalancing the game3. The second option, is that you make the town guard or merchant NPCs high enough level/sufficiently powerful that the players are in serious danger if they attempt to attack them. In DOS2’s case, this means that most of the merchants are weirdly capable in things like magic and swordsmanship, despite seemingly spending their lives yelling in a village square. In WoW’s case, this means that all of the town guard sit at the current max level of the players, and will usually cream the shit out of any individual starting trouble.

Mightiest hero in the land, Stormwind City Guard

For a videogame, which lacks the moderating influence of a player – DM relationship, and with a computationally limited ability to adjust the world, these decisions make mechanical sense. The challenge of combat in DOS2 would be somewhat trivialised if you were able to gear yourself with the best available gear by easily slaughtering merchants at the very start4. The ‘story’ of WoW would be heavily disrupted if you could plunge a sword into the king’s head at any moment. The decisions, do not, however, make even a lick of narrative sense. In WoW’s case, a player character sat at the max level has overcome colossal challenges. They’ve fought and won against beasts from other dimensions, titans built as guardians of the world, outer gods who have come to consume the whole planet. Wielding armour and artifacts embued with holy power and arcane magics, they find themselves equally matched by a member of the town guard, wielding a mass-manufactured sword and uniform. It’s nonsense, clear baloney, but it’s a fact that the game needs you to accept (or at least, not think about) to not cause the wheels to fall off the rollercoaster.

In levelled, fantasy roleplaying games like D&D5e and Pathfinder 2e, levels do not just reflect a power change. Levels reflect a context change. There is a frequently quoted set of contexts with associated level bounds within these systems:

Level BracketContext
1 – 5Local problems, villages, towns.
6 – 10National problems, cities, countries.
11 – 15Planetary problems, continents, hemispheres
16 – 20Planar problems, material plane, universes
Not pictured, “level 0 problems”: big stinky rats.

The idea is, as the players increase in level, the context of the campaign shifts to accomodate their new abilities. Importantly, this is nothing to do with mechanical balance. This is purely to do with the narrative implications. Shifting the context at level sixteen says to the players that the mundane world can no longer offer a problem they can’t easily overcome. Their accomplishments have grown them to the point that they need to engage with transcendetal beings, or other dimensions, to be given any sort of challenge. By simply adjusting the levels and stats of otherwise mundane NPCs, you rob your players the opportunity to look back and see how far they’ve come. If the difference between a level 1 bandit, and a level 17 bandit in your world purely amounts to greater damage numbers and stats on a page, then something has gone wrong and an opportunity has been lost.

To codify this into a mistake then, the problem is merely upscaling the challenges that were faced in previous levels, instead of introducing new challenges that better fit the power the players now wield. This is something I have stumbled across in some of the PF2e prewritten content. I won’t have any spoilers, but the players go to a city that has a level 17 city guard in garrison. As far as I can see, they’re not blessed by the gods, they’re not forged out of clay and given sentience through magic — they’re just normal human humanoids.

Don’t mind me, just your friendly neighbourhood watch, wielding the power to kill at least two level one adventurers in a single blow of my sword!

Now admittedly, the city isn’t an entirely mundane one, but my point still stands that there hasn’t been an established narrative reason for the guard to be walking gods. If you need your players to visit a city where you don’t want them to immediately tear up the place with their immense power, you probably want to set it somewhere that isn’t extremely mundane. Put the city in a pocket dimension, with divine otherworldly guards — not just ‘Todd the Guardsman’ who, for some reason, is capable of cleaving a hill giant in half. Ask yourself, if your town guard are so powerful, why aren’t they the ones solving the problems that the adventurers are? There could be a myriad of reasons why this is the case, political, religious, not just a power disparity. There just has to be a reason, otherwise you end up with WoW-world.

Footnotes

1 Your roll fails to hit the DC, which means it’s a failure. It’s 10 below the DC, which means it becomes a critical failure . The natural 20 only adds one level of success, which returns the result to being merely a failure, but a failure nonetheless.

2 I’m increasingly convinced that the whole system is balanced on someone having the ability to effectively Treat Wounds.

3 The Elder Scrolls games are a mix of these approaches. Sure, you can murder a shopkeeper in Skyrim, but they won’t have the purchasable catalogue of their store on the body — making the murder relatively pointless. With some NPCs, you’re prevented from killing them at all, simply rendering them unconscious despite the fact you’re burying a battleaxe into their skull.

4 Worth mentioning that DOS2 does indeed give you the ability to outright butcher NPCs. If you go back to a town having gotten several levels over it, you’re able to absolutely blow it to smithereens. Though at that point, the gear they drop is likely to be useless. I wanted to have DOS2 as an example of a non-MMO RPG, but in a lot of respects, it bucks the normal trend here.

Categories
ttrpgs worldbuilding

creative tire-spinning

There are two wolves. One loves to start new things, buy new games, start new RPG campaigns, take on new hobbies and do anything other than what I was doing last week. The second wolf is an incredibly impressionable one, which loves doing whatever I was just exposed to. If I’ve been watching/listening to something that’s Call of Cthulhu-esque, I’ll immediately start writing a Call of Cthulhu campaign. If I start reading a fantasy novel, I’ll start writing a fantasy novel. If I see some good art, I’ll start thinking about drawing, maybe finishing that art course that I started last year. If I see someone playing a game, I’ll probably start playing that game too, unless there’s something about it which really puts me off. These two wolves combine their energies, and make me someone who loves to start new shit, and that new shit tends to be based on whatever I was last exposed to. This is a problem.

It’s a problem because I see the creation of multi-part works, like books with future sequels, or RPG campaigns, as a promise to the people that experience them. The promise is, generally, ‘this will go somewhere, and will be concluded’. This is something that I’ve complained about when it comes to Game of Thrones (the books), and more recently The Kingkiller Chronicle – series where the author has yet to finish them, and has left the readers waiting for several years. I see it as cruel: the most dedicated readers of the work are the ones who suffer the longest and most; left waiting for a conclusion that may or may not come. There’s an element of bad craft as well. If your first few books came out with a good regularity, but your final one takes you over a decade to write, it suggests that you didn’t plan out the series and have been stuck trying to tie up ends. I think there’s a general intuition that starting things is pretty easy, but ending them satisfactorily is difficult. There are frankly enumerable TV shows that we can point to as a perfect example of this imbalance, especially in the ‘mystery box’ genre, which seems to be vogue right now.

If I told you that I never intended to finish the book that I started posting here, you’d probably think I was an asshole. You’d wonder why I didn’t warn you that it was never going to have a conclusion, and you probably wouldn’t have read it. You might even feel deceived — the feeling that people have when they buy an early-access game that never sees a proper release. I know there’s a lot of emotion around this subject, and folk tend to take the side of creators unless they’ve done something really heinous, but I think it has to be a two way street. Consuming media is not an effortless activity by an audience: sure there’s definitely forms of media that are easier to experience (TV, mobile games, etc), but everything demands some level of engagement from the person experiencing it. If you’ve read all the Game of Thrones novels, and the final one never sees the light of day, then it feels like your effort (as the audience) has not been respected. Money definitely complicates this picture as well. Some scrambled thoughts here, but I guess I’m trying to give you a picture of the internal creative trampoline I live on.

Here’s a list of stuff that I’m currently have mid-flight:

  • Writing a fantasy novel, chapter by chapter, on this blog.
  • The Pathfinder 2e system review post, the last part of which sits in drafts.
  • Creating a PF2e prewritten campaign for levels 1-5.
  • A LANCER campaign that I was meant to run for a second time, but haven’t gotten round to.
  • A D&D podcast idea that came about pre-pandemic, I made some moves towards starting, before it all sort of fell through the floor.
  • Photography bits and pieces, RPG videos using the camera that I explicitly bought for this purpose.
  • Miniature painting a load of minis that are due to arrive very soon.
  • Finishing a udacity character drawing art course.

This list goes on. It sort of sits in a priority order, and I was considering making this an actual page on the blog. “Creative projects that have yet to be finished”, but that felt like normalising the act of never finishing anything. I feared that it’d become something of a ‘Google Graveyard’. I wonder though, is this a problem? Is this the state that I just need to exist in? If I set up enough projects, when I’m inevitably influenced into working on something due to some stimuli, then I can just pick up where I left off? I’ve started reading The Wise Man’s Fear and I can already feel myself being compelled to continue writing the book on this blog. I’ve wondered if there’s an element of arrogance here as well: seeing a piece of media and then thinking I can do better. I’m not sure that I think it’s true, or helpful to think about things that way, but it’s definitely something I’ve considered.

In terms of RPG things, the most successful stuff that I’ve done tends to be in the 3-4 session length. After that, I know that my interest starts to fade, and I start to look for novelty in other things. I think what I need to do, is find a way to satiate that desire for novelty within those projects. If I’m getting tired of the direction a long-running RPG campaign is going in, then I need to find a way of spicing it up for myself. Creating fresh, exciting dungeons. New regions, new maps (I always love making maps, that seems to be the one constant throughout my trampolining) or new NPCs. The same goes for the book, if I feel myself getting bored, maybe I need to write a chapter that occurs in the future but don’t publish it yet.

Anyway, here was some scrambled thoughts, and a semi-explanation for why I’ve stopped posting so frequently on this blog. Partially it’s been because I’ve been thinking about and writing the PF2e prewritten, so I might make a few posts on that just to have something going up every so often.

Categories
review ttrpgs

Review: Pathfinder 2e (part two)

Now that we’ve got an understanding of why Pathfinder exists, it’s time for me to get into the system and talk about what I think works, and what I think doesn’t work. Let’s be positive and start with strengths.

Ten Up Ten Down

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the action economy didn’t you? It’s coming, but one of my favourite features of the system is how criticals work. Let’s start with an example of play.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator, a level 17 Fighter wielding a sword and shield is locked in deadly combat with three kobolds. It's Ko'Rosh's turn, and they elect to strike at the nearest kobold. They roll a natural 20, a critical hit. This automatically hits, and doubles the damage of Ko'Rosh's blow, sending the kobold into the afterlife with a brutal slash. They use their second action to perform another strike, and they roll a 18 on the d20. When combined with their formidable attack bonuses, the value exceeds the kobold's AC by 10 or more, which upgrades the strike to a critical hit; another kobold sent straight to kobold hell. For their last action, Ko'Rosh raises their shield, adding +2 to their AC.

The remaining kobold decides to thrust their spear at Ko'Rosh with all their strength, and also rolls a natural 20. However, Ko'Rosh is adorned with the mightiest plate armour in all of Heimeletar, wielding the biggest shield in all the land. This puts Ko'Rosh's AC at over 10 above the kobold's attack, even with the natural 20. While the kobold does get the hit, it is downgraded to a regular success as a result, doing meagre damage.

I’ve used the simplest example here of strikes in combat, but this system of +10 or -10 upgrading and downgrading dice results is an excellent addition for a few reasons.

  • Rules that interact with criticals are no longer mostly wasted space, as we can expect them to occur much more frequently than the normal 5% on a d20. (PF2e makes extensive use of this, more on that later)
  • Players now have a degree of control over criticals – using AC modifying effects, they can cause them to happen more or less frequently.
  • Results like 19 on the dice are no longer an “aw that was almost a natural 20, but now it’s just another result”. Extremely high rolls of the dice are rewarded (and the inverse is also true).
  • Large level differences are exemplified – if you’re a living god, then no matter how hard they try, a kobold cannot crit you (but can hit you, a rule normally played out by ‘confirming criticals’ in older systems).

This is a very low weight mechanic (in terms of explanation and literal text), that punches far above its weight in terms of impact and excellence. I enjoy it so much that I would even be tempted to homebrew it into systems that don’t have it, provided that their critical rules aren’t completely outrageous. Point 2 in the list above is something that I think is very important to stress. I have an ongoing memory from a game of Shadowrun Fifth Edition, wherein a player managed to sneak behind a security guard that was manning some camera screens. They drew their pistol, without being noticed, and shot them in the back of the head. However, because they didn’t roll critical damage, they only did about half the guard’s health; oof. However, in the Pathfinder 2e world, we’re increasing the chance of critical damage as well – so enemies that are flat footed (from being unaware, for instance) are also more likely to eat a fat crit. Neat!

Another element of this, which is a positive or negative depending on your viewpoint, is that Pathfinder 2e can also feel much more lethal than D&D 5e. Damage numbers have remained mostly comparable, with d6s/d8s plus bonuses remaining common, but the amount of crits flying around has increased considerably. This can make encounter design a bit more challenging, as an enemy that was intended to be a minor speedbump might turn into a critting machine. Of course, the inverse is true, with players occasionally mowing their way through enemies that you may have expected to last longer. I tend to be more of a “watch the world burn” sort of DM, so the fact that combat can occasionally be incredibly swift and brutal is perfectly fine with me. A common complaint of these systems is that encounters can feel gruelling and slow – for levels 1-5 at the very least, I can say I have not found this to be the case for Pathfinder 2e.

Action Economy

Alright, let’s talk about it. This is the most commonly lauded part of Pathfinder 2e, if you’re looking for a reason to try PF2e, this is probably it. There is a scourge that afflicts RPG systems, a scourge by the name of action types. If we look at Pathfinder 1st Edition, we have six kinds of action…

  • Standard
  • Move
  • Full-round
  • Swift
  • Immediate
  • Free

I tend to believe that if you have keywords that are so close that they’re nearly synonyms, you shouldn’t use them. Could you tell me the difference between an Immediate action and a Swift action, without knowing anything about PF1e? The PFSRD page for the action economy in first edition is an absolute atrocity. So what about D&D 5e?

  • Actions
  • Reactions
  • Bonus Actions
  • Free Actions
  • Movement

While these will be more familiar to most than the Pathfinder 1e terminology, we still have some ambiguity with what exactly a bonus action entails. I’m sure this won’t be a problem for someone who’s a career D&D 5e player, who doesn’t play anything else, but for someone who swaps systems frequently, this can become incredibly tedious; especially when those systems will often use the same terms for different mechanics, or the same mechanic with different terms. So what do we have in Pathfinder 2e?

  • Actions (Costing 1-3 Actions)
  • Free Actions
  • Reactions

Full disclosure, the rulebook specifies a fourth type called “Activity”, which is the term they use for things that cost more than one action to do; but I find that categorisation actually makes the rules more confusing. The reality: you have three actions, and one reaction by default. The vast majority of things are in the 1-2 action cost range. Let’s have an example of play.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator is locked in combat with four town guard, having successfully stolen three kegs of ale from a local tavern. Ko'Rosh moves to the nearest guard, clocks them in the face with a mighty punch, and then raises their shield expecting retaliation.

One of the guards moves in with cudgel in hand and attempts to sock Ko'Rosh in the head. They roll high enough to hit Ko'Rosh, but they block with their shield in response - mitigating the damage.

Moving was an action, striking the guard was an action, and raising their shield was an action for Ko’Rosh. Blocking the hit from the guard with their shield cost a reaction. So not only do we have a system that enables a character like a Fighter to indulge in activities that aren’t just moving forwards and swinging a sword, due to the flexibility of having three actions, but we have clear costs for performing those things. If Ko’Rosh had decided to draw their sword, that would have cost an action, which is fine because we have three to play around with. In D&D 5e, having an action cost for drawing a weapon would be extremely punishing, so you have a bizarre situation where doing so is free in the rules (for the first thing drawn). This means that D&D 5e has a bizarre edge case rule for this, (see stackexchange) which Pathfinder 2e does not need.

This follows onto a lot of other activities beyond just drawing a sword. As PF2e is able to divide your turn into thirds, we can have a much smaller delineation of actions, rather than having actions just be “a part of your move”, which is a very mechanically unsatisfying answer.

Image result for legolas running up falling rocks gif

Movement

I’m having this be a subcomponent of the action economy, but the decision to have movement cost an action is one of the best decisions they made with the system. To ask a philosophical question, what is the purpose of space and movement within an RPG system? There’s lots of simulation-y answers here, but in gameplay terms, we have them because they create interesting choices and situations. By having distance, and by requiring effort to cover distance, we enable characters and classes that aren’t fantastic up-close, but excel at longer range, to exist. Pathfinder 2e has an established cost for moving up to your movement speed – one action. That action is fungible, which is to say, it could have been drawing a sword, making an attack, recalling knowledge on an enemy, opening a door, etc. By doing this, movement and positioning becomes important – being stood in the right place means getting an extra attack next turn, it means being able to draw the two handed battleaxe on your back for the final blow.

If we have the movement cost be non-fungible, ala D&D 5e, we no longer need to make that choice. While there might be circumstances like terrain that change that, my character being here, and my character being 25ft away are identical situations in a world where I can move 25ft for free (broadly speaking). Naturally this consistutes a problem, because a game in which everyone can move for free every round, means that characters which want to fight at longer range can essentially guarantee that. This is where attacks of opportunity come in, to try and dissuade you from taking that free move, because it now has the cost of potentially eating a chunk of damage. So we’ve gone from movement being free, to movement having a variable cost mostly based on a dice roll – a cost that few are willing to pay, so they don’t. The irony of this situation being that a game where movement is free, frequently involves people standing still because they don’t want to trigger attacks of opportunity.

Pathfinder 2e has thrown that out. Attacks of opportunity are very rare among monsters and NPCs, and are the property of a specific set of classes. If you are a Wizard, you are not going to be stabbing someone with a dagger as they move away from you. The cost of movement is (usually) well defined, and the decision to move is one that is (usually) well informed. Example of play time.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator and his travelling companion, Maralanor of the Big Owl, have attempted to capture a renowned bandit with a hefty price on their head. After several rounds of brutal combat in a warehouse, a broken oil lantern has led to the area that Maralanor is stood on being ablaze, and their quarry making a hasty run for the door. With two actions remaining having drawn their spellbook, Maralanor has a choice: do they move out of the fire and avoid possibly fatal burns, or do they remain in it and attempt to cast Paralyze on their fleeing foe?

In a system where movement is free, the question of “do you move out of the fire” is a pretty simple one, outside of some extremely edge-case scenarios. However, in a world where movement means and costs something, we can create scenarios where that question is much harder to answer. In this instance above, there’s a good argument for Maralanor staying in the fire and casting the spell in a PF2e world. In a D&D5e world, there’s absolutely no reason (in the setup above) that Maralanor wouldn’t use their move action to extricate themselves from the fire, then cast Hold Person with their action. I want to believe that combat RPGs are more than just swinging a sword at a goblin – they’re about making decisions in high intensity scenarios. While there’s a limit on the number of choices that people can reasonably pick from, I think movement is something that people should need to consider carefully before doing it. This is something that Pathfinder 2e has managed to do, and I think it’s a much better system for it.

Shields

I am a shieldman. I love shields, I love the aesthetics of shields, I love the physicality of shields, I love it all. If a game gives me a chance to have a shield, I’ll normally take it. This is why my heart bleeds for the implementation of shields in D&D 5e. What an absolute waste! Here’s the roll20 version.

Yawnsville, Tennessee

Is that it? +2 AC? Look at what they did to my boy. Now to be fair, there’s a feat called Shield Master, which allows you to shove as a bonus action, add that +2 to your dexterity saving throws, and avoid all damage instead of half for effects that’s relevant for; but it’s still not enough. So what have we got for Pathfinder 2e? A lot more.

Different kinds of basic shield? Oh my!

I feel that shields are a great example of where the streamlining of D&D 5e took a little bit too much out. A shield is more than just the AC bonus it provides, and Paizo realised that. So there’s a whole slew of ways that shields have better mechanical depth and more rewarding gameplay – let’s go through some of them.

Shielding as an Active Thing

In Pathfinder 2e, you don’t simply strap a shield to your arm and call it a day – the act of shielding requires an action called Raise a Shield, which grants you the AC bonus until the start of your next turn. While this might seem like a painful requirement at first, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the early levels, you will frequently have actions to spare. As a result of strike actions scaling such that your second strike in a round is at -5, and your third at -10, it’s usually a waste to use actions on them. At later levels, there are feats that either mitigate, or outright remove the need for the action. But, right from the off, shielding is something that is done, not something that just happens – this is a step in the right direction.

Combine this with a level 1 general feat called Shield Block. Shield block is fantastic because it combines the theme of deflection (increasing AC) with the theme of mitigation (damage absorption) that shields have. Instead of the interaction with a shield being purely your opponent needing to get past it, you can now choose to let your shield take some of the pounding. It’s worth mentioning that on the deflection side – AC improvements are valuable in PF2e because not only do they reduce your chance of getting hit, but they reduce your chance of being crit; so characters with low to middling AC still find value in increasing it, even if most enemies will still hit them in a fight. Let’s go to an example of play.

Aremie Riddlesworth, the level 1 paladin is locked in combat with two street thugs, one wielding a pair of daggers, the other wielding a two handed club. She can hear the footsteps of the town guard on their way, so she only needs to hold out for a round despite her wounds. She's up first so she elects to trip one of the street thugs, move backwards 20ft, and raise her shield. By tripping the street thug, she forces it to spend an action standing up (an action that could have been spent attacking) - between standing up and moving after her, the street thug only has one action left for an attack, which misses.

However, the second thug moves after her, and has two attacks. The first attack hits, and threatens to knock Aremie unconscious with 7 damage, more than her remaining 5 health. She uses shield block to mitigate the damage. Her steel shield eats five of the damage with hardness, and the remaining damage bleeds through into her health and shield. The second attack from the thug misses due to the -5 (from multiple attacks) and the +2 AC from Aremie's steel shield. The round ends, and four town guard round the corner, making for a much more even fight...

In this instance, Aremie used the shield in two different ways at level 1 – increasing her AC and also mitigating damage. If we wanted a more trite example, she could have used it to Shield Bash (which is a supported weapon in the system, requiring no homebrew).

Shields as Something to be Specialized In

If Aremie was wielding a shield with Shield Spikes, then it would start to do more reasonable damage. If she had the level 6 feat Shield Warden, and there was an ally stood adjacent to her, she could use the shield to block damage to them. If she had the level 1 feat Reactive Shield, and the blow from the thug would have been prevented by the additional shield AC, then she could have raised her shield in reaction rather than as an action. This is a subset of the available feats that we could have, and the complexity increases with levels. This is also not including complexity added by magical shields! This one thing, largely a footnote in D&D5e has been given a new lease on life.

This is not least because the Champion class makes extensive use of shields, and has several class elements that interact directly with them. They’re now an item that is worth looking at in depth, and helps bring a shielding character concept to life.

Downtime

A not-inconsiderable amount of the Core Rulebook is dedicated to a pillar of the game that Paizo has called “Downtime“. Downtime is a tricky thing, because it’s something that a large group of players will simply never interact with. If you’re an adventuring party that goes from dungeon to dungeon, slaying and looting from dusk till dawn, you might never need to use them. However, if you’re running a campaign where the characters have something more akin to a life, then at some point you’re going to run into the question of “what does my character do when they’re not plunging a dagger into the back of a cultist”. I think that the downtime rules provided have given substance to that need, and made clear to the players what their options are. There are a set of downtime actions that are available to everybody (long term rest, retraining, buying and selling goods etc), and then there’s downtime actions that are given to us by the skill system (more on that later). Time for the example of play.

Aremie, having just avoided a unsightly end in the alleyway, retreats to her tavern room to recover for the night. The following morning, she resolves to earn some coin to repair her shield and sleep in a better bed, so she chooses the Earn Income activity for the day. Using her formidable knowledge of Religion, she elects to be an acolyte at the local temple. The DM sets the "task level" of this at level 1, with a DC of 15, as it's an entry level job with little risk of skill required, in a middling part of town. She rolls her religion, and beats the DC. Looking at the Earn Income chart, as she is Trained in religion with a task level of 1, she earns 2sp from the day.

If Aremie desired, she could continue to work the job for the rest of the week, keeping that amount of money - which in 4 more days, would leave her with 1gp to spend. Not a huge amount, but a start.
The Mighty Earn Income Table

As the Earn Income rules are so extensible, they act as a great catch-all for when the players just need a little bit of extra money to do something. Furthermore, because almost anything can be used as part of an Earn Income activity, it means there’s always something to do for a player with spare time on their hands. While some might see this as unnecessary mechanisation, and were happy for this to be decided on the fly by the DM, I am not one of those people. I’ve made good use of this ruleset already, and I consider downtime to be an important part of any adventure. You cannot have hot without cold, and I feel like you need to have some normalcy to make the dungeoneering feel more exciting and meaningful.

If I had a criticism of these rules, it’d be that the craft times for mundane items seem incredibly extreme, with a minimum of four days. They can also be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first, with some players being more happy for the DM to just decide this all for them with hand waving. I consider them a good opportunity for the DM to introduce “clocks“, which I think are a fantastic RPG system. If your players are looking to build something themselves over an amount of time, like a bridge or a house, then the earn income/craft rules give us a great shorthand to achieve that. Set the value of the bridge to some value (500gp for example), and then have them do an Earn Income (Craft) check to determine how long it takes them.

Travel

To be dramatic, I don’t think there’s anything that makes a DM scratch their head more than travel in a combat-y fantasy RPG. It is the white whale of this genre of RPG, a beast that will spawn infinite stack exchange posts with questions like “How do I run overland travel in [system]”. A beast that will birth infinite subsystems and homebrew concoctions, each with a thousand rollable tables, each requiring new forms of mathematics to determine how far the party can walk. A beast that threatens to grind any session to a halt, with the rulebooks hitting the table, and the “lord of the rings travel playlist xxBongRipZxx” running out of songs.

It represents the fly in the ointment. In combat-focused RPGs, encounter-mode is the quantum world, and overland travel is classical physics, with no system describing both of them to a satisfying degree. Until now. Ah, that’s not true, it’s still somewhat painful – however, PF2e gives us a toolset for handling play that primarily involves moving from A to B, which they’ve wrapped up into the pillar of the “Exploration Mode“. The same concepts of movement speed and actions are present here, but a glaze of vagueness has been applied to enable more narrative gameplay. Again, an example of play.

Clamwater Belchkins, Trudy Grobbsnobbler, Price Snaggleport and Roger Vergie are travelling from their local village to the magical city in the hills. With a minimum speed in their party of 25ft, they're capable of travelling 20 miles per day at 2.5 miles an hour (8 hours of travel). At this rate, they expect to arrive at the city in three days, as it is 60 miles away. They set forth, and the DM asks them how they're intending to travel.

Clamwater says that they're going to keep a sharp lookout in case they're ambushed. The DM translates this to the Scout activity, and adds the bonus to their initiative in the event of combat. Trudy says that she's intending to look for traps or items on the ground. The DM equates this to the Search activity, and will roll her Perception in secret if the party stumbles across something. Price says that he's going to be looking for magical auras using Detect Magic, and so the DM will let them know if they stumble across any auras. Roger intends to keep their shield up in case they're ambushed, so the DM goes to the Defend action.

With all of this settled, the travel speed is adjusted as these actions reduce their speed by half. The Magical City in the Hills is now six days away, but they'll be all the more prepared if anything comes up along the way. Which it does.

While this ruleset doesn’t tell us how characters travel over a map (you’ll have to look at the bad hexploration rules for that, more on that later), it does give us a really nice package for the more narrative-y travel sequences. If characters know where they’re going, and you know the route they’re taking, these rules provide an excellent framework to solve that problem. The trickiness arises when those things aren’t the case. The highest level (of abstraction) solution to this problem is for the players to succeed on a Sense Direction check, modified with bonuses from any information they’ve gleamed, with a DC determined by the sort of terrain. However, it doesn’t give you much for what happens when they fail, beyond “they don’t know what direction they’re going”, so there is still a fair bit of DM work to be done here. The “fail forwards” answer to this would be to have failure cost time, which is a potential solution.

It’s worth mentioning that these travel rules are embedded alongside everything else that PF2e considers ‘exploration‘. There is a lot to unpack here, and I do wonder if it would have been better for there to be a specific ‘Travel’ trait, but I also see the argument for keeping it bundled together. Exploration encompasses literally everything that isn’t combat, or specifically defined in the downtime section, so you’ll see rules for travelling over great distances knocking against rules for identifying magic. As I said, a lot to unpack, but I think that the travel rules are a boon for the system in the main.

Strengths Summary

I like to believe that I’m someone who straddles the crunch – fluff axis. I enjoyed playing Pathfinder 1e, and I enjoyed playing Monster of the Week. This is to say, I’m not someone wedded to the idea of having rules exist for every possible interaction or decision in a roleplaying game if the players and DM have a good framework to arrive at a sensible solution. In Monster of the Week, you don’t need to have specific rules to handle a character kicking someone, versus punching them. The game provides you with an abstraction (Kick Some Ass) which handles both those scenarios perfectly well for the type of game that MotW is, and the experience it wants to provide. Conversely, Pathfinder 1e and 2e are tactical combat games first. Encounters are a puzzle to be solved, and the players have everything on their character sheet available as a solution. As such, we want a certain level of definition and mechanisation, to allow the players to meaningfully work within those options, and solve a given problem. If I tried to summarise it in a one or two sentences, Monster of the Week gives you mechanics and rules to act as abstractions for what you (the player and the DM) want to happen narratively. Pathfinder (mainly) gives you mechanics and rules to act as tools to achieve what you want to happen narratively.

As an example, in Monster of the Week, you describe narratively how you’re going to punch the clown in the face, which we translate to the Kick Some Ass action and roll appropriately. In Pathfinder, you punching the clown in the face narratively is given by you using the mechanisms that the system provides (striding 15ft to the clown, using the strike action with fists to hit them). While these two scenarios could be altered to reflect the opposing view, I think the intention of the two systems is the key (rules as an enabler vs rules as a descriptor).

I don’t see crunch as an inherently negative thing. If the rules serve the sort of story and experience that the system wants to provide, then it’s grand. For some, having a well codified ruleset for governing many interactions makes the experience of DMing easier, because they don’t need to come up with options on the fly. Almost all of the strengths I have listed above are areas where I think having better codification has pushed Pathfinder 2e ahead of other fantasy RPGs. With more mechanical depth to shields, common questions like “can I hit them with the shield” now have a mechanical answer. With more mechanical depth to travel, questions like “how can I look out for traps while travelling through this forest” can now be answered within the language of the rules. These enable players to have expectations for how these decisions play out, which enables planning, and payoff. If a player gets an amazing result on an Earn Income roll, they don’t have to rely so heavily on the DM making a call in their favour: the rules provide that.

Similarly, with the ten up ten down system, we now have a mechanical framework to reward players for rolling close to but not quite criticals, rather than DMs having to fiat something for when players roll a 19 on a Performance check. For some, this is unnecessary legwork, and they’d be happier with dictating it as the DM. For me, I enjoy not having to think about those things in a fantasy combat RPG, because it gives me more time to think about what actually matters (encounter design, magic items, etc). This does however, make for a fat rulebook and an unappealing first impression. This is not a system I would DM as my first outing, or my second, but we’ll get onto that.

While this isn’t an all encompassing list of everything I like about the system, I think it covers a good portion of what I enjoy. If I wanted this post to be a million miles long, I’d also cover how I think the monster generation tables are excellent, and how the rune system for weapons is pretty good when you get your head around it. Next post will be about what I think the system is really weak at, and then considering it all in totality, so stay tuned.

Categories
ttrpgs

shutting the office

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 164 (1843)

On March 31st last year, as part of his ongoing actual play series Far Verona, Adam Koebel roleplayed the unconsented sexual assault of one of his players. Despite some initial, considerable outrage, he continued to release content for his channel until the 4th April, with an apology on twitter that he posted the day before. On the 8th of June, in a blog post to his personal website, he says that he is moving on. A few blog posts here and a couple of tweets there, have been all the online activity I’ve seen. An announcement from July of that year, about his removal as a writer from the Dune RPG, is the last RPG post that I can see. For now, it does seem like Adam is “gone” in the online sense of the world.

I will lay my cards on the table. I was a huge fan of Adam’s show Office Hours where he took questions from listeners on TTRPGs. I sent two questions in, which Adam answered and was extremely nice towards. I never watched any of the actual play pieces he did; I’ve tried repeatedly to watch podcasts like Adventure Zone and Critical Role, but I invariably bounce off them after a time. I’ve come to accept that I just don’t like the format, and I’m going to stop forcing myself to like it despite the great popularity it has. I thought that Office Hours was an important series because the DM principles that Adam outlined seemed so essential. His views on the role of the DM resonated so profoundly with me that I would not be surprised if my style shifted overnight having watched his series. He captured nuances and talked in details that I didn’t think any other Youtuber was covering, and I ate it up.

I will joke about things that make me uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve always done, and it’s definitely gotten me into trouble before, and will get me into trouble again. It’s a coping mechanism for sure. There’s another element of this which is a very poor reaction to stress that I have. Stress causes me immediate and obvious pain, I’d describe it like painful pins and needles or a light burn that sort of throbs across my body. It’s very bizarre, but this also causes me to spasm, usually involving my hands. Uncomfortable situations cause me a great deal of stress, stress causes me pain and spasms, pretty simple – so I joke with people, I joke to make those uncomfortable situations go away. I’ll joke with people, and then go and privately spasm on my own time (as is my right). Maybe everyone does this and it’s not just me, I’ve not really asked.

Why am I talking about this? Because I joked at Adam’s expense about the events above. While I didn’t go onto twitter to send bile at him, I was incredibly bitter about the series of events with friends. For a moment, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I really did hate him. This was a heady mix of him violating the DMing principles that he espoused, with a subject (sexual assault) that someone operating in his political sphere (TTRPGs being a pretty left space) should know better about. I wanted to tear him out of my life, and so I did. I unsubbed (gasp!), removed any mention of him from my RPG discord, disconnected a bot that fed videos from his channel to it. I left his community discord, and went about my life. Maybe there’s a sense that, by doing this, I was somehow unburdening myself, but judging by the fact that I’m writing about it now, that clearly wasn’t the case.

I felt like I had been betrayed. I felt like someone who I looked up to, who I agreed with the principles of, had exposed what their real character was. Everything else was for show, everything else was a fraud. This feeling wasn’t borne from some sense of moral revulsion, it’s far more basic than that. I had been lied to, I felt like a sucker – and nobody likes feeling like a sucker. Here I’d been, sending questions into, following, and recommending the videos of someone who clearly didn’t believe what they were saying! Now everything he said was tainted, how much else had he lied about? There’s a sense that, in sharing these videos and taking pleasure in featuring in a couple of them, I was now partially responsible for what had taken place.


In his blog post titled ‘Moving On’ on June 8th 2020, Adam talks about the community reaction to what happened:

I continue to be the recipient of hate, vitriol and targeted abuse both in public and in private spaces. I’m being emailed anonymous threats of harm if I ever return to broadcasting or attend a convention, messages telling me I shouldn’t exist at all let alone be allowed to “come back” — voices shouting that nothing I had previously said or done or made mattered in the face of my mistake. People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible.

https://www.adam-koebel.com/blog/2020/5/18/moving-on

Whenever there’s a public figure who has committed some awful act, it seems fairly common that they bemoan the effect it has had on them. My mind goes back to the apology letter from a certain Dota 2 commentator, accused of sexual harrassment, who stepped away from the scene while simultaneously saying they did nothing wrong, and that the toxicity in response was impacting their family. There’s a gut response here of like, fuck you. Don’t act sorry and wounded because people are rightfully disgusted by what you did. Don’t play the victim when you were the perpetrator. Don’t talk about yourself when you should be talking about who you wronged. I feel no sympathy in the Dota 2 case, possibly because I wasn’t terribly attached to that person, and largely because I feel what they did precludes them from working in that industry ever again.

If you look at some of Adam’s tweets, you’ll see the responses he’s describing in the post. You’ll also see a lot of supportive comments, and a lot of “head in sand” comments from people who don’t think Adam did anything wrong. The line from the blog that resonates with me most is the “People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible”. Does that not terrify everyone? I feel like this idea of people just being “damaged goods” that cannot be fixed leads to so many terrible things, with the least bad of them being “them getting harassed on twitter”. But simultaneously, would I want that Dota 2 commentator back in the spotlight? Would I not be utterly outraged if they were given air time? Is this a question of ‘degrees of bad’, where what Adam did was awful, but not so awful as to knock him into the “you’re never allowed to make content again” world?

I don’t know. If Adam came back today and started making Office Hours again, I wouldn’t watch them. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I thought Adam’s advice in it was incredible, my trust has been broken. But there’s a part of me which feels like people should be able to look back on the series, watch, it and learn. There’s a part of me which feels that if he did come back, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to watch them – it just wouldn’t be for me. I’m not equipped to say how long Adam should be shunned for; I don’t think anyone is. I think it’s a personal decision for everyone who watched his content, or would come to watch it. I do think that people who sent Adam messages, saying he’s an awful human, threatening harm, whatever – those people need to take a look in the mirror. There isn’t a space in the TTRPG community for what Adam did, but there’s also not a space for that either.

In my day job, I try and find systematic reasons for why people have made mistakes. These aren’t mistakes in the Adam Koebel way, but mistakes in terms of programming and other worky-type things. It’s important for me to do this because I don’t think we get anything from blaming individuals in the workplace. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help create an environment where those mistakes aren’t so common, with a recognition that it could have been anyone who made it. I don’t buy the “personal responsibility” angle that basically defines the right wing, and enables people to hold some truly horrific views of other human beings. I want to do more to blame and hate broken and unfair systems, rather than the people that live in them. The question is how I can reconcile this with a belief that Adam screwed up, and that I won’t watch his content again? How can I reconcile this with a belief that I never want to see that Dota 2 commentator’s face ever again? What’s the system that led to them doing what they did? I don’t know.


The simple, systematic answer for the response harassment is that Twitter, Facebook, and other bits of social media are so bad. I feel like the lesson of the last 15 years, possibly the lesson of the 21st century, will be that these platforms were a mistake. I want to believe that, at some point in the far future, people will look back on this period in tech and think “what the hell were they thinking”. If that doesn’t happen, maybe the future is far bleaker than I want to believe. We’ve gained nothing from their existence. They’ve not promoted greater commonality of man, they’ve created factions and ingroups. They’ve not given us a venue to express our compassion, they’ve promoted hatred, publicized bile, and given a platform for ideologies that should have been destroyed long ago. Why should anyone be surprised that these awful comments are rife, when absolutely nothing about the platform inspires people to interact with any sort of candour or understanding. All of that UI design, that A/B testing, making it as easy and friction-free as possible to tell someone to kill themselves in 280 characters or less. Whatever we got out of this, it wasn’t worth it.

So what’s the summary of this blog post? Have I come to some eureka moment, where everything’s clear and delightful? No, not really. I’m still bitter about what Adam did. To my own chagrin, I cannot bring myself to watch the whole scene from Far Verona. I have tried on numerous occasions, but I just can’t stomach it – I close the video every time. Maybe there’s an element here that I don’t want to see someone who I looked up to, doing something so awful. There’s also the tiny fact that I don’t want to watch someone roleplaying sexual assault. I guess, if there was a summary of this it would be “how bloody awful this all was”. However, I am feeling better about having written it all down, so there’s that.

I won’t be posting about this again: despite the shortness of this post, I don’t think there’s anything more I want to say on it. What I will say, is that there’s still a void in my needs where Office Hours used to sit. I’ve tried getting into Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, and I do watch them from time to time, but I disagree with Matt on so many things, and dislike the lack of focus. It feels like the diet version of the series I loved. It’s like your favourite TV series getting cancelled, so now you have to watch the Netflix produced equivalent and it’s fine, but that’s all it’ll ever be. C’est la vie.

Categories
new melyne ttrpgs worldbuilding

the town of New Melyne (part two)

jobs, trades and industry

Today, as advertised, we’re going to be talking about the jobs and industries that are present in New Melyne. It’s quite rare in RPGs that players will actually work at their established occupation; most of the time it’s background material that explains “why they’re the way they are”, not expecting them to spend a session working as an Architect or Blacksmith. I do, however, think that it’s important for NPCs in a town to have established reasons for being where they are. In a dangerous place like New Melyne, we want our townies to have good cause for not catching the next iron caravan out of the place, and into a safer place to live. A lot of the time this might be family, or lack of money, but it’s equally likely to be their profession necessarily ties them to the land. So let’s give some colour to New Melyne and chat about what we expect folks to be doing on the day to day.

We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Firstly, let’s use donjon’s Medieval Demographics generator as a solid foundation for us to start on:

You’ve got to have your Mercers. Society would truly fall without them.

This will be the canvas we work on. Thankfully, we’re not going to have to create twelve separate shoemakers as that’s not a typical RPG haunt, but it gives us a good expectation for what the general townie of New Melyne might look like. There are some trades that I would say are mandatory for a town if it is to be an effective setting for a traditional adventuring game:

This is not because the town could not function without them, because obviously there’s a lot of trades that the town wouldn’t function without. This is because these are trades that our players are likely to interact with at some point in their campaign. By setting this up now, we enable what I think is the “optimal play experience” for a player in a settlement; needing some form of trade, and knowing where to get it. It’s normally a pretty miserable experience for a DM when a player asks where they can buy something like a disguise kit, if you don’t already know where that might come from. It leads to something I’m going to call “pop up shopkeeping”, where no trade in the settlement feels permanent, they just manifest in reaction to the players needing them. While this is bound to happen at some point, by pre-planning what’s here, we can avoid having to do it quite so often.

Conversely, a player knowing where they’re able to get certain things means that they’re more likely to be immersed in that settlement. When you leave your house to pick up groceries, you probably don’t need to rediscover where you get them every time. Similarly, when a player knows details about a settlement (“Dontov’s Roasts is the place to go when our characters want to talk over food”), they’re more likely to form an emotional bond with it. If you ever want to do a campaign where a settlement is destroyed, make sure the players know the names of at least three places that are going up in smoke, otherwise it’s no different from when they torch a kobold nest or goblin encampment.

Out of the jobs we have here, players are most likely to interact with Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Inns, Taverns and Doctors. These fulfill the very basic adventuring needs1 of “Somewhere to buy things that kill, somewhere to rest after they have killed, and somewhere to feel better if they have been (nearly) killed”. For this reason, we’ll focus on flushing them out first. From the donjon list, we’ve got one blacksmith, five carpenters, one inn, three taverns and zero doctors. This is problematic; we already established that New Melyne is a town with fantastic access to iron, so having a single blacksmith feels like a missed opportunity. We don’t have a doctor, and we have five carpenters, which feels extremely excessive. So we’re going to adjust those values a bit: we’ll have three blacksmiths, two carpenters, one doctor. Let’s just say that two of those carpenters decided to pick up the hammer and tongs, and one of them decided that medicine was the life for them (maybe after some horrendous, saw based accident).

the blacksmiths

Let’s talk about these three blacksmiths. Three is a good number, because it allows us to inject some character into each one, distinguishing them from the rest, while not being too odeous a task to plan. I always like the idea of shops having specialisations, because they become an easy shorthand for the players to remember them by. Similar to real life, we understand that certain supermarkets are better at certain things (stocking that flavour of crisp you like) versus others, even though they’re all supermarkets. Blacksmithing has some fairly obvious “specialisations” to me – weapons, armour, household and industrial. Weapons and armour are self explanatory, household would be anything that you could imagine in a normal house, utensils, pots, pans, and locks for instance. Industrial would be things like picks, nails, cart braces, anvils2, horseshoes etc.

We don’t necessarily need to limit a blacksmith to doing only one of those specialisations, as they might be of differing size. For instance, one of the three might be the best for weapons and industrial blacksmithing because they’re larger and older than the other two. In fact, why don’t we make that the case?

Huxler’s Arms

Specialization: Weapons, Industry

Description

Huxler's Arms is the first and oldest blacksmith in New Melyne. Owned and operated by Wallace Huxler, one of the original setters of the town and close friend of the Founder, the smithery is home to some ten to fifteen employees, apprentices and smithery aids.

A small front building with a shop, primarily selling arms, backs onto a large courtyard where the sounds of blacksmithing and forging ring out. A medium-sized workshop building contains most of the smithing equipment, and a large water tank holds water used for the quenching of metals.

New Melyne Armour

Specialization: Armour

Description

While New Melyne Armour is the most recent blacksmith to appear in New Melyne, it has landed with some recognition and quickly established itself as the premiere smith for anyone looking for protection. The owner, Kios, became famous when she challenged one of the townfolk to stab her through new halfplate. The event ended with a broken blade, and an injured hand.

The building is too small to have a shop area, and Kios prefers to conduct business on the workshop floor. There are no display racks of armour here, everything is made to order and made to last. Though, there is a small outside area where the handful of employees may catch a breath of fresh air away from the soot and smoke of the forges.

The Blessed Machine

Specialization: Household, Industrial

Description

Situated just off the main road, the business has been a fundamental part of New Melyne for almost ten years, selling industrial materials and household items through to the various shops and merchants in the town and beyond. Jointly owned by sister and brother Rivia and Marcos Zhorest, their business has gone from strength to strength as components created in their smithery are nationally known for their machined precision. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that the building was never used due to its cleanliness and relative quiet, but the Zhorest siblings value tidiness and organisation over all else. Employees of The Blessed Machine can often be seen leaving the shop with soot-covered overalls and faces, but return pristine the next day. As a result, the building housing the smithery is deceptively small, with space utilised efficiently. A small office is where most business is done.

So now New Melyne has three blacksmiths, with plenty of opportunity for us to flush them out later, and lots of potential starts for quests. Perhaps the Zhorest twins have discovered a small fire elemental in one of their forges, and have requested the players to remove it? Perhaps Kios charges the players with looking into a potential conspiracy, where a trader has claimed that her armour fell to pieces and killed a client? It might also be the case that the players simply interact with them to sort out their weapons and armour, but with the little detail we’ve included above, those interactions become flavourful and meaningful.

the hospitality

Now, it’s time to do what might be the most important aspect of the town’s trade, the inn.

The Unturned Stone

Description

The Unturned Stone sits in the very centre of the town, and is one of the largest buildings in all of New Melyne. Primarily of wood and stone construction, a great deal of care and attention has been involved in its architecture. Its walls are thick, and while there are wooden slatted windows, they are small to avoid loss of heat. There are two entrances, a large set of thick, wooden doors that act as the main entryway, and a second, smaller entrance at the back of the building for intake of stock. Curiously, the main entranceway boasts a set of iron braces for a barricade, that can be dropped into place via a lever and chain. This was a specific request from the Founder.

The ground floor is a large, open plan tavern area with enough seating for fifty tavern-goers at a time. The first floor hosts a collection of sleeping quarters, with enough beds to support twenty people. These are a mix of dormitories, with basic floor space for bedrolls and beds, to private rooms with animal pelt rugs and hearthplaces. There is a public washroom where warm water is brought up and decanted into baths - a common haunt for miners when the grime and dirt becomes too hard to shift through rags and scrubbing.

The owner of The Unturned Stone is a woman by the name of Bogod Harrien. She is renowned for her fiery temperament, and willingness to throw ne'er-do-wells out of her establishment. Privately, she was a good friend of the Founder, who mostly paid for its construction at the very beginning of New Melyne's history. She is protective of her employees, and couldn't be forced to part with the inn at spearpoint. She has a deep and profound adoration of New Melyne, and if she thinks something is amiss, will not hesitate to act. 

We now have our very first inn! Innkeepers are normally important characters, especially in small towns/villages, so with Bogod, we have great opportunities to introduce potential quests and politics into a session. It could be the case that the players enter the inn, Bogod sees that they’re capable of handling themselves, and asks them if they’re interested in work. Given that this is the only inn in the town, if the players aren’t roughing it out at night on their bedrolls, they’re going to cross paths with this place.

We can always add more detail to these places, but I’m a firm-believer that more detail will come in play. Maybe Bogod’s history was being a Captain of the Guard, or a mercenary, and she has a selection of weapons mounted on the walls as fond memories of that time. (and to have them available in a pinch…) But with a firm foundation, we have enough to give to the players on that first glance. However, The Unturned Stone is not the only establishment in New Melyne; we need a selection of taverns as well. With taverns, I find it’s important to have a spectrum of places: one that is fancy enough to act as a ‘victory lap’ for the players after coming by a hefty chunk of gold, one that is shady enough for them to conduct or disrupt illegal business, and one that can act as a catch-all for anything else.

The King’s Riddle

Description

The King's Riddle (referred to as just "The Riddle") is a small, hole-in-the-wall tavern, constructed about fifteen years ago, it has served as the quiet drinking location of a select few. Its small size (only allowing for a maximum of twenty drinkers) has created something of a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody, and while the tavern is open to everyone on paper, the reality is that strangers are regarded with a degree of hostility. It's not impossible to become a member of this community, but it will be through invitation if at all. The low ceilings and generally low light makes it a perfect spot for one to conduct more unscrupulous business - but only with the consent or involvement of the owner.

The King's Riddle is owned by Mandos the Old, an old smuggler who hasn't quite managed to shift his desire for illicit activity despite his old age. He did not know the Founder, and largely kept out of his way, however with the Founder's disappearance, Mandos has somewhat expanded his reach. There are rumours that he is attempting to form some sort of syndicate, but rumours are just rumours...

Quentin’s Magnificent Chalice

Description

Strange aromas, wistful stringed instruments and the meaningless conversation of those who just like to talk. These are all things one would find on a nightly basis at Quentin's. Secluded down a pathway between two buildings in the center of New Melyne, one must knock and check their weapons at the door to gain entry. While Quentin's is available to anyone who wants to wet their whistle, the prices are the primary barrier to letting just anyone walk through the door. Ergo, Quentin's is the primary locale for traders, property owners and visiting nobility: who might be inclined to drop a hefty sum of money on something as ephemeral as a shot of liquid claiming origin from a thousand miles away.

The business is owned by the eponymous Quentin, who made their riches selling armaments and magical artifacts to the highest bidders. While they might describe their escapades in more fruity language, it is fairly clear that Quentin is a war profiteer with little to no regard for the consequences of their actions. To Quentin, life is temporary, and those who have lost at the game of life are just that: losers. While this latest business is in Quentin's own words, their retirement, it's a possibility that they will just up sticks and leave if the desire takes them.

The Silver Boar

Description

Located in the industrial district of the town, The Silver Boar is a miner-owned and miner-run establishment. A squat building with a single floor, rough furnishings, and a utilitarian look, The Silver Boar offers a perfectly acceptable drink at a more than reasonable price. What makes its location inconvenient or even unpleasant for a regular townie, makes it perfectly well suited to those working in the more industrial part of the town.

What started as a break area or resting room for miners finishing their shift has ended up as a fully functional tavern. With the disappearance of the Founder, and the emergence of the town council, the miners promptly unionized to avoid exploitation. The tavern is, legally speaking, owned, operated and subsidized by every miner in the union. It might not be the place for a quiet drink, but if you're looking for somewhere to forget the day's toil, it's the place to go. 

Well, we’ve added some flavour to the town from these, especially from The Silver Boar, where we’re beginning to talk about the actual forces and powers at play. With them in place, we shouldn’t be lacking a locale for our players to undertake most activites that one would in a tavern.

the carpenters

While carpenters aren’t likely to see as much activity as Blacksmiths, it’s worth having them planned out to enable those who might not use metal (druids) or prefer bows and such.

Melyne Carpentry

Specialization: Furniture, Construction

Description

Melyne Carpentry was one of the first businesses to appear in New Melyne, created by some of the workers that performed initial construction on the mine and camp. Situated on the north side of the town, close to the treeline, is a large warehouse for storing planks and lumber. Accompanying this is a sawmill for the processing of wood provided by the local lumberjacks.

While the carpenters was started by a collection of workers, the de-facto leaders are considered to be Mary Sawtooth and Gregory Radler, who were largely responsible for the carpentry needs of the town during its founding. They're a bit longer in the tooth than many of the new carpenters, but their knowledge is without match.

Three Tree Bowyers

Specialisation: Bows
Three Tree Bowyers is a relatively new business, started six years ago by Kheri Strangeblood. Despite the dangers involved, the Bowyery is set outside the boundaries of the town, in the forest. While not being so far away from the town as to be without protection, the building is more akin to a small fort than a normal carpenter's building. The walls are made of stone, the doors are thick and heavy-set. All work takes place inside, apart from the testing of bows, which happens on a small firing range outside.

Kheri Strangeblood firmly believes that the finest bows can only be made in the shadows of trees. She chases the platonic ideal of a bow, with her designs becoming more and more simple as time goes on. Despite their simplicity, their deadliness is without question - the only challenge that Kios of New Melyne Armour has refused is one where the weapon was a Strangeblood bow.

Phew, that’s quite a few locations. We haven’t done the Doctor yet, but I have a plan for them, which we may cover in the “Powers” post which I will be doing next! What does that leave New Melyne looking like?

Still a bit bare! We’ll need some houses and markets in there, but we can cover that later. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’ll catch you next time for “Power and Power Brokers” section of our journey here.

Footnotes

1 Unless you’re playing a very survival focused game, food and water are unlikely to be mechanised, and we normally expect players to receive them from inns and taverns; if I was to add another trade here, it’d be some sort of food market stall.

2 Somebody has to have made the first anvil. Right? …Right?

Categories
ttrpgs

rulebooks

Arguably, the rulebook is the most important part of a system. I’m not just talking about the rules (which define the system), but I’m talking about the actual artefact that is the rulebook. An incredible system that has a terrible rulebook is a game that people aren’t going to play, because they’ll never get at that incredible system. Conversely, a fairly average system that has a well laid out rulebook is something that will likely do very well.

In this post, we’re going to talk about things that rulebooks consistently get wrong, get right, and some other stuff.


pdf – “pretty damned frugal”

This is tangentially related, but I don’t think it’s right to talk about rulebooks without bringing this up. This is something Wizards of the Coast with 5e had previously been very bad for, but have somewhat improved of late. Stop charging nonsense prices for PDFs/virtual copies of your game material. If I want to get Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus on DnDBeyond, it costs me $29.99, which is roughly £22. If I want to get a physical copy of it from Blackwells, it’s £26.34 with free shipping. Now admittedly they’ve got it on sale, but most retailers have it floating around at £31. You’re telling me that the difference between the physical printed book, and the virtual version (locked to the DnDBeyond platform iirc) is between 4 to 9 pounds? That’s nonsense, unless those online transactions are being carved onto gold bullion.

Paizo (publisher of Pathfinder, Starfinder) has a far more reasonable pricing scheme. If you want a hardcover copy of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, you’re looking at about £36-40. If you want to get the PDF off Paizo (with no strings attached, just a normal, searchable PDF), it’s 14.99$, which is £11, a full £25 cheaper than the cheapest physical printed copy, and a full $45 cheaper than on Paizo’s own store.

(Note that the physical rulebook cost here is much pricier than from UK retailers)

If Paizo, a far smaller company, can sell a much larger product (the core rulebook for Pathfinder Second Edition has a lot more content compared to the Player’s Handbook for D&D5e which is also $30), then Wizards of the Coast can do the same. There’s no reason that physical copies should be even remotely competitive with PDF pricing, so something has gone very wrong here. What’s even more frustrating is that publishers have a far better revenue stream in all of the other game-adjacent shite they can sell you. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love game-adjacent shite.

fig 1. Game-Adjacent Shite. Please ignore the dust, I’ve not played 5e in quite some time.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will buy game-adjacent shite till the cows come home. The key thing is, I think G.A.S is a critical element in a fair and successful TTRPG business. Saps like me, with disposal income, will buy crap like spellbook cards for £25 a pop, despite the fact that they’re literally plastic with text written on, and probably cost less than half a micropenny to make (something that Wizards of the Coast has plenty of experience with). As they’re overcharging on these unnecessary pieces, this should mean that they’re able to offer fire-sale prices for the rulebook, even selling it at a loss if they need to. The videogames industry has been doing this for yonks with consoles, selling consoles at a loss to get people into the ecosystem, enabling them to buy overpriced games1.

So people who don’t have the disposable income can afford to buy the rulebooks, (hardcover and PDF), subsidized by the rich shmucks who’ll buy the crap like spellcards, battle maps, miniatures and coasters. Everyone gets access to the rules, the system creator makes plenty of money, the shmucks get to stare at their G.A.S. To go even further, you can make the lions share of the rules free online, without all of the lovely art and stories of the rulebook, and make buying the PDF/hardcover a luxury option as well. This is what Paizo have done with Pathfinder, so if we were being very snarky, I’d say that this is purely a problem for Wizards of the Coast2, with their incredibly meagre offerings in the 5e SRD. By making your rules free, and your PDFs cheap, you get people into the game and more likely to buy stuff like adventures. If you don’t do this, people just pirate the PDFs, and then you get nothing.

lore of the land

Rulebooks are for rules first, everything else second. It doesn’t matter if it’s not strictly called a rulebook: whether it’s a Player’s Handbook, Agent’s Handbook, Investigator’s Handbook, its purpose is to explain how the game is played above all else. If it contains incredible prose, fantastic artwork, phenomenal worldbuilding, but you don’t come out the other side with a good understanding of the game system, then it’s a bad rulebook. Do not get me wrong, I love a fat 600 page rulebook. I’m an absolute sucker for those double page spread full artworks. I delight in the short stories, or the world maps that I’ll never play on. But the rules have got to be there, crystal clear, first.

I might appreciate all that art when I’m sitting in bed, reading it on my free time – but will I appreciate it when I’m flipping through in the moment, trying to find a rule that a player has just inquired about? A great example of the “style over readability” problem is the Shadowrun Fifth Edition rulebook, which is full of instances where rules text has been squashed to accomodate pieces of lore or art. Where they’ve done a great job of making it look like it’s some sort of futuristic computer, but a less good job of making it nice to read.

Yes, the artwork of the troll is lovely, but the fact that it’s the largest element of the page, squashing everything else, is terrible.

I’m not sure if this is something that has been improved in the sixth edition – I hope so. For a rulebook that I think gets this just right, I’d look to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition core rules, which comes in at a lighter 350 pages, but is packed with lore (which almost entirely sits at the front of the book). The artwork is fantastic, but also used sparingly – I never feel like a part of the rules are far harder to read as a result of the formatting. The lines are nicely spaced, the font is appropriately fantasy-ish but legible.

An example career from WHFRP4e. There’s far fewer rules compared to the Shadowrun character, but what’s here is formatted in a lovely way.

I’m sure someone will be tempted to say “but Oli, it has far fewer rules compared to Shadowrun! They can afford to have space and nicer formatting”.

The fact that Shadowrun is a much denser, more rules-heavy game is exactly a reason that it should have better formatting. Games that are very rules-lite can afford to be wistful, with plenty of art and blank space. Games that you’re going to need to flick through quickly to reference certain sections need to be far more concise and diligent.

Dense and messy, versus well-spaced and clean.

No matter how you cut the cheese on this, it is a decision to have a dense book; nobody is forced to make it that way. If Shadowrun 5e’s rulebase was so large that it demanded this formatting, then the lore and world aspects should not be in the same book – they should be in a separate book or resource. D&D 5e has nailed this by having the Player’s Handbook be a short (~300 page) book with only what the players need, with the setting, worldbuilding and GM elements moved into the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). I’m much happier to swap books occasionally, than I am having to fight my way through a gigantic tome full of information that isn’t useful in the moment. Bad formatting like this is a choice, and one that shouldn’t be taken.

lead by example

Give me examples of play you bastards. Not just one at the start of the book that shows how much fun and excitement one can have while playing, but one for every single major rule or section in the game. Examples of play are so good for learning how a particular set of rules work, that I will frequently read the example first and then the rules after. Even the most complicated of rules, when expressed through a near-life example can become far more comprehendible and appreciable. The stand out example of this for me is in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition’s (CoC7e) Keeper Rulebook, where we are essentially following the adventures of a character called Harvey Walters.

In this snippet, we’re shown how Stealth can be used, how pushed rolls work, and the general flow of the game

CoC7e has some fairly complicated rules in it, and it would be easy to get lost in situations such as “lifting a heavy object as a group” or the general framework for Chases/Pursuits if there weren’t great examples of how those rules are used in these little snippets. Monster of the Week has only a couple, but those examples give us a great window into how the creator intended the game to be run. This is another big benefit of them – often, unless you run a prewritten adventure or scenario, examples of play give you the firmest picture of how the game creators intended the game to be…played. Not just demonstrating specific rules and their usage, but giving us the tempo and temperature. It really shocks me that more games don’t have them throughout their rulebooks, as there are definitely instances of rules in CoC7e that I would have just bounced off without them.

non-starter

Dark Pursuits, a prewritten adventure for the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition RPG, is one of the worst prewritten campaigns that I have ever run. It is extremely detail-light in parts, expecting the DM to do an extreme amount of work outside of the text to keep things going. It feels extremely rushed, where players and DM are whirled through a series of encounters at breakneck speed. It is also set in one of the densest, most complex entities in the Warhammer 40k universe: a ‘Hive City’. As a DM, cities are one of the hardest parts of any RPG; requiring you to manage a lot of (most likely sentient) characters, goods, government and services – all of which are contained within the same space3 with many potential interactions. Hive Cities are like this, but on space-meth. They are astronomically large, containing innumerable souls, and are socially complex, where all the various elements that make up the Imperium of Man interact with one another.

The Dark Heresy ruleset is a fairly dense one at that, boasting more complex rules than an entry level RPGer might come to expect. So we have a fairly complicated system with an adventure set in one of the most complicated settings that a campaign can reasonably be set in. I’ve missed one detail. This is the starter campaign for the game. Oh yes.

I’m not an expert, but perhaps you shouldn’t have a complex web of trade in the same campaign billed as ‘introductory’

I’m absolutely in the target audience for Dark Heresy. I have a decent knowledge of the 40k universe, having played the tabletop game as a kid, and having played most of the videogames that are set in it. I’m an absolute sucker for dark, investigatory style games with terrors from beyond. A diverse party of strange, biomechanical humans wielding a collection of arcane and futuristic weaponry to solve mysteries and banish evil in a morally grey universe? Sign me the warp up. However, I bounced so horribly off this starter campaign that I’m not sure I’ll ever touch the system again. Having read stories online from other people running it, while they might not describe it as negatively as I do, there is a lot of “we went completely off the rails”, or “oh just make that detail up”. I do not want to “make it up”, that’s the whole point of a prewritten campaign4.

The starter campaign for your system cannot be “budget”. This might be a player/DM’s first experience of your system, so it has to land. If it doesn’t, they might (like me), never play it again. When I say budget, I don’t mean that it can’t be short – in fact, starter campaigns should always be short because folks will often play them to get a sense of a system before delving into it more. I mean that it can’t be low effort, something stuffed at the back of your Core Rulebook with a few pages dedicated to it and a little bit of artwork. It has to be low friction, smooth learning curve, with a lot of material to ease players into it. Contrast this with the Starter Campaigns for D&D5e (Lost Mines of Phandelver) and WFRP4e (Wacky Slip on a Pie Time), which are both complete products with prewritten character sheets and plenty of G.A.S to make the experience as smooth as possible.

They also, critically, contain cut-down versions of the rules that give a beginner an easy window into the system for the purposes of the campaign.

On The Tabletop - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set | TechRaptor
The box lid even doubles as a GM screen. Image sourced from techraptor as I couldn’t be bothered to get my own copy out and photograph it. #higheffortblogging

Full disclosure, I have not finished running the WFRP4e starter campaign, due to a couple of Real Life Things getting in the way (along with a global pandemic), but it already feels like a more complete experience than what Dark Heresy offers. It’s clear that a lot of effort and thought went into it. “But Oli, those starter sets are paid for, whereas the Dark Heresy campaign came free with the rulebook”. Ignoring the “it’s free” argument5 for a moment, the Dark Heresy 2e rulebook would have been better if those pages were used for nearly anything else. A separate product (that they could have charged for) with the same care and intention that Cubicle7 and Wizards of the Coast gave theirs, would have been a vast improvement. There’s a parallel world in which they did that, and I’m still playing the system.

You get one shot with this. It doesn’t matter if the first published Dark Heresy campaign after the rulebook is an absolute corker, because the well has been poisoned for me. I would also say it’s quite rare for someone to go and buy a full campaign for a system that they’ve not played before. It’d be a hard sell for someone new to 5e to immediately buy Out of the Abyss (and also a poor intro to the system), and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect beginners to do that. So, don’t throw in a “gratis” starter campaign as an afterthought into your rulebook – either dedicate time and material to it, or don’t and look to creating a separate product. Full-arse it.

use your noggin

The Pathfinder Second Edition rulebook has a lovely little feature. On every other page, there’s a bar that tells you where in the book you’re currently reading.

The aforementioned bar.

A lot of rulebooks have this in the header, rather than on the side, telling you what section you’re in. Here’s it in the CoC7e rulebook.

Chapter 4: Skills, Chapter 5: working out how to run a game where nobody has Spot Hidden above 25%

Is this a big thing? No. Is the PF2e bar probably a whiff too large? Yep. Is this something that every book should have in it? Absolutely. My preference would be for a full bar, but some indication where you’re reading is great, especially given you might be in a section covering a large body of rules (like Combat). Here’s the LANCER one:

Like everything else in the rulebook, it’s absolutely beautiful. Do you want to see the 5e one? Of course you do, you cheeky little scamp, but you have to be careful or you’ll scare it off.

A whisper in the night, found only at the very bottom of the page. I love little stuff like this because it isn’t much, but it makes for a much more readable rulebook, and they’re all generally getting it right. I’d like for rulebooks to trend towards what PF2e has done, but with more restraint.

back against the wall

I have given you a selection of three rulebooks to peruse. Which one do you like the most? Alright, I’m cheating slightly because the one on the right is from the Collector’s Edition of 5e. They’re also being crunched slightly by my bad lighting and phone camera, but we work with what we’ve got. Let’s break this down in an analytical manner, that only the backs of rulebooks could deserve.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e

The Collector’s Edition cover is a feast for the eyes. No text, because if you’re buying the CE, you probably know what it is. The symmetry is awesome, the colours are fantastic (I heartily recommend looking at the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is my favourite of the CE versions), and it features the prominent iconography of the D20, and the ampersand which has become the logo of the Dungeons and Dragons series. Top shelf stuff. However, this is cheating, as the CE version is much more expensive and rare, so here’s the normal one.

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Archive
I have to say, looking at this is vaguely nostalgic even though it’s a relatively recent game. Nostalgia for in-person, outside activities, perhaps?

Arm Yourself For Adventure. A solid tagline, and especially fitting given this is the book where players will be creating, customising and quite literally arming their characters for adventure. The content in the body text below is, sure enough, an honest representation of the game. In fact, I would say that this blurb has a better idea of the strengths and focuses of the D&D5e system than most of the people playing it; but that’s a post for another time. The font is luxurious, as with all the fonts chosen in the book, and the colouring is solid as a rock. White text on a blackground is a personal favourite, and contrasted with the red of the angry fire pup on the right hand side, it practically jumps off the page at you. Lovely use of blank space, clear and concise, with a great summary of the book contents and game. Top marks.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e

No, the book isn’t dirty, it just looks like this I swear.

A Grim World of Perilous Adventure. Oh yes indeed, life in the Old World of Warhammer is cheap and bleak. Gone is the mystique and majesty of the firey pup, and instead we have a bleak, smoggy scene from what is most likely Ubersreik, one of the major cities in the universe. This back cover says to you “your foe will most likely not be some mythical, majestic beast of flame, instead, it’ll be typhus. Or dysentry, whatever gets you first”. The little blurb on the back promises not a clean adventure of heroism and righteousness, but instead, boldly states that you’re going to be a scumbag who probably kills for coin. And it’s right.

Stated entirely in character, it fits in well with the rest of the book where you get the feeling that you’re reading the musings of some unreliable narrator, rather than some lofty god giving you the objective truth of the world. All is shades of grey (like the cover), all is relative. I do like the fact they’ve listed a time of “1-4 hours” like it’s some sort of board game, feels oddly quaint. The fonts are good, while sacrificing a slice of legibility for that Warhammer feel, and the logos along the bottom are clean and nicely pushed out of the way. Watch out for that barcode, though – it’s so large that I dare say that Ubersreik is thoroughly imperiled.

Pathfinder Second Edition

GOBLIN

Admit it, you knew this was coming. When I showed you the gallery, you knew there was an ugly duckling in there, and it is a very ugly duckling. Advance Your Game. What game? The game of Pathfinder that I have yet to start, as I am an earnest rookie RPGer, holding the book in their hands for the first time? Perhaps, the game of life? Have I picked up the right book? Thank goodness they included the tiny “rulebook” indicator at the top, as they’ve made it as hard as possible to determine that from anything else. The centrepiece of the cover is the most bizarre part for me. The artwork is very good, apparently they knew this because the art is used again in the Alchemist class pages. But why the Goblin Alchemist? My suspicion is that they wanted to make a big deal out of the playable Goblin ancestry, and the core alchemist class, but would you care about either of these things if you weren’t already a Pathfinder player?

The summary of the game given by the text is justified in my experience of playing it, however the justification of the text is wack as all hell. They’re trying to form it around the Goblin art, but almost any other layout would have been better. It really does feel like somebody had five minutes to put some text on the back, and the clock was ticking. The strangest part is, the front cover art is actually extremely good.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook (P2): Amazon.co.uk: Bulmahn, Jason, Bonner, Logan,  Radney-MacFarland, Stephen, Seifter, Mark: 9781640781689: Books
This was originally a party of seven, pour one out for all the heroes stood behind them.

This just makes the contrast between the two even worse. On one face, an epic battle depicting beloved Pathfinder characters engaging in combat with a beast that many will recognise, looming over a delightful pile of gold! On the other, a…goblin…looking at us. Why? I’ll stick by my “they wanted to sell the goblin and alchemist stuff”, but what a baffling decision that is.

Something I will chuckle about for a while, is that the logo for the Pathfinder series is just the word “Pathfinder”. Which means, on the back of the book, in the logos…

This is the same logo used on the front cover. If you don’t know you’re playing Pathfinder, then forget about finding paths, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. For full equivalence, here’s a picture of the Special Edition.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook (Special Edition) (P2): Amazon.co.uk: Bulmahn,  Jason, Bonner, Logan, Radney-MacFarland, Stephen, Seifter, Mark:  9781640781696: Books

It’s…fine? I actually prefer the normal rulebook despite being a big fan of minimalism with these things. I’d take the back from that one though.

Anyway, that’s enough ranting about the backs of rulebooks. Maybe I’ll do another post about the fronts of them too, who knows. 2021 is a year of possibility.

Footnotes

1 I’ve been ranting about this with friends for a considerable amount of time, but the price rises in console and PC games are utterly ridiculous, and I’m stunned more people aren’t up in arms about it. £70 is not a reasonable price for a game, and if everything else inflated at the same rate that games have (despite making MORE money through additional revenue streams), we’d all be living in boxes.

2 Though Chaosium seems to think ~£21 is an acceptable price for a book that retails at around £32 in hardcover. Not quite as bad as Wizards, but still.

3 Hive Desoleum (the hive that the campaign is set in) is described as “taking several days of weeks to cross”. Do you have a map for this? No, or at least, not one that I’ve found.

4 I do not like prewritten campaigns, but I normally run them the first time that I’m playing a system if they’re easily available and not gigantic. Expect a blog post on this.

5 If I came up to your birthday cake with a grater and an onion, and began shaving the onion onto the cake, the fact that the onion was free doesn’t seem very relevant.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 4)

being honest

Nicht dass du mich belogst, sondern dass ich dir nicht mehr glaube, hat mich erschüttert.1

Friedrich Nietzsche, #183 Beyond Good and Evil

It occured to me that people might think I was finished with the fudging series after the last post, but I think there’s more to unpack. That was specifically an attack on the idea of fudging rolls to preserve a story, but we’ve got a few more left that we need to drag down and beat into submission. Once again, as clarification, these posts are about people who fudge without their players realising.

Transparency at the table is only a good thing, and if your players are happy with that, play on maestro.


sniffing the dice

When it comes to using dice as an object for generating tension, there’s a lot about the argument I do not disagree with. There’s certain “ceremonies” that occur when we play a lot of RPGs, the sound of dice rolling for an unknown cause, the players looking at the DM’s face to discern whether the value they rolled beat the threshold they needed, the pivotal moment where the rolling of a dice will dictate the campaign’s course for sessions to come. These are powerful moments, and it is not surprising that they’ve become memes, jokes and often referenced elements of the D&D culture. The rolling of dice taps into some primal part of the human brain, where the brakes are off and there’s nothing to it but what Lady Luck gives to you. This is, more depressingly, one of the reasons why gambling is so addictive, and such a problem.

There’s no greater evidence for the importance of dice in mainstream RPGs than the fact that even the most die-hard (hehe) of fudgers will struggle to remove the dice altogether. People argue whether or not DMs should fudge, but they’re very rarely for removing the dice altogether, even when they’re throwing gigantic cubic spanners in their much-beloved stories. They know the clacking sound of the dice is important, they know that the players feeling the element of fate in their interactions is valuable – so we keep the doors, we’ll keep the steps to the temple, even when the alter within has been desecrated2.

There’s a couple of pragmatic arguments that I can make here, which I’ll make first, and then there’s a more wistful, philosophical one. My first point, is that it only takes one realisation, and someone will realise. Whilst I think that people are normally bad at identifying instances where Things Aren’t Statistically How They Should Be, I believe that people have a sense that they develop over the course of regular play. If you’re fudging in favour of characters surviving encounters, it only takes a few strangely knife-edge combats before people start smelling that something’s off. As a player who has played in campaigns where people have secretly fudged dice, there is nothing worse than that moment of “was that really the roll?”. You begin to question every roll, not just the ones that are being fudged, because the players don’t have access to that information.

The moment that someone realises this is happening, the curtain is pulled up. The emperor has no clothes. The doubt has been seeded. Instead of a monster landing a critical hit being a tense moment where the hand of fate has tipped against the players, it’s a “uh-huh, sure” moment. Previously, you had the excuse of randomness to explain why certain rolls didn’t go the player’s way, but now, you’re the reason they didn’t. The terrible part of being the master of everything, is that you’re also on the hook for it. One of the greatest gifts of the dice roll is that it gives us distance: those moments of despair are directed at Lady Luck. Players curse their dice, claim they’re discharged and swear to not use them again in the session. Now that misfortune has a human face, and it’s yours.

the weapon of the enemy

It is of great importance to set a resolution, never not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s beleiving [sic] him. This falshood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all it’s good dispositions.

Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris Aug. 19. 1785.

It would be remiss here to quote Jefferson being good and honest without also pointing out his slave ownership and moral repugnancy. However, it’s a great quote, and I also agree with it.

I do not believe people who say that they only fudge “a little”. Let’s define some terms – if “a little” here refers only to the quantity of rolls, then it’s fairly meaningless. If you only fudged once in a session, but that fudge altered the direction of the campaign for the sessions to come, then you did not fudge a little, you fudged a whole lot of the game there. If “a little” means that the fudges were of little consequence…then why did you fudge at all? Things that are insignificant are excellent candidates for deciding through randomness, because then we don’t have to think about them, and can think about more important things.

In addition to the mostly semantic argument above, I see fudging as infectious. There’s a glib comparison to power I could make here – it’s hard to give up power and control; that applies to life, and dice rolls. What starts out as “fudging only to prevent TPKs or complete disasters” slowly takes hold in other areas. Now it’s fudging to push them towards content you think is cool, or fudging to stop them from killing a boss too quickly. That control starts to feel comfortable – the dice can no longer surprise you. Content you’ve planned will be reached, fights will continue until you’ve had your fill. You can tell how a session will go from start to finish, and it will go in the way you think is cool and good. Thank goodness, because you’ve got an awesome boat encounter planned for next session that you need them to get to.

How do I know this? I used to fudge. When I started DMing, I saw it in the same way that a lot of people do; a tool in a toolbox. I’d fudge to stop people from dying in a way I didn’t want, or to push them towards the stuff I spent a lot of time writing. It was only when I started to think about RPGs more abstractly, with prodding and influence from friends, did I realise what was happening. Fudging is the One Ring – I get that you want to use it to save Gondor, but soon you’ll be keeping it on your finger because it’s so damn comfy3. To disappear even further up my own arse, there’s a hope that these series of posts might do for others, what other videos and content about fudging did for me. If you do fudge, I’d suggest recording instances when you do, and looking at what sort of impact the ignored roll had. Seeing how far you’ve adjusted the game, even if you think you only fudge a little.

cogito

Let us assume you are the master manipulator. You have 100 Speech, you have natural 20’d your deception checks (you’re making the values up, but hey). You are the Werewolf of Wall Street. No matter how subtle your adjustments, there is one person at the table who will always know that you lied about the result of the dice.

You.

That time they managed to bring down the fiercest White Dragon, but only with a Hold Monster result that you fudged for them?

You know you did that.

That moment the party managed to perform a action-packed smash-and-grab, getting out of the building with their wits, intelligence, and because you fudged the sniper damage that would have killed one of them?

You know that it shouldn’t have happened that way.

That session which ended with one of the players exhaling and saying “I can’t believe that happened!” after they narrowly avoided a TPK, and you can’t either, because you lied about the dice roll that would have caused it.

You’re going to be thinking about that when they talk about how absurdly lucky they were.

I could go on, very dramatic. In all seriousness, one of the biggest problems with fudging for tension is that you know it isn’t real. You are robbing yourself of the experience that the players at the table are partaking in. Those moments above, which have players yelling and pounding the table? You can be there with them. You can celebrate when the white dragon falls because you didn’t guarantee it. Some of the greatest, most emotional moments I’ve had at the table have been when I’ve DMing, and things have come down to a final roll. In person, I come out from behind the screen, I throw the dice where all can see, and I get to react with the players. I revel in the glory of the roll going their way, I share in the despair of the worm turning. They know that, for that moment, we’re all a captive audience, we’re all sitting in the same stands.

That’s an experience I would never give up. No amount of control or power over the game is worth losing those moments of spectacle and bonding. In addition to this, fudging the rolls is a burden. For each roll, you’re thinking about whether you should, or shouldn’t let it pass. “Is that outcome fun enough?”, “Should I do something else?”. It’s fatiguing. There’s nothing I find more refreshing and liberating as a DM than just letting the dice do the talking. There’s enough to worry about in a game than needing to decide if an event needs your illicit intervention; sure that might lead to some sticky situations where the dice have driven the campaign in a particularly bizarre direction, but that’s when the players know that this shit is real. When they look in your eyes and see that what’s happening is not “all according to plan”, that we’re outside the city limits with our foot on the gas – that’s when they know they’ve found their game.

Don’t do yourself dirty like this. Bask in that tension, bask in the results. Let the game surprise you, like it surprises everyone else at the table. I don’t hate fudging out of some moral superiority – it’s a TTRPG question for goodness’ sake. I hate fudging because it makes the experience worse and robs the DM of the ability to enjoy it in the same way as their players. I hate it because it’s a crutch that you don’t need, one that’s giving you a limp.

I hate it because you can do better.


This might be the last post in the series, but I think it’ll be a living thing that I add to whenever I come across a disagreement, or a new argument for fudging. I’ve covered the arguments I put in part 2 with broad strokes, even if I didn’t call them out by name. I think the last thing for me to talk about is the DM as an agent of “fairness” against the unfair dice, and the DM as the arbiter of fun. That post might come a bit later as I’ve got other stuff that I want to write about first.

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Footnotes

1 “Not that you have lied to me, but that I no longer believe you, has shaken me”. I included the original German just in case I translated it poorly, or the other translations online didn’t properly capture it.

2 Somebody stop me.

3 Despite me talking about LOTR a fair amount in these posts, I’m not a mega-LOTR fan. I do really like it, but it’s not my be-all and end-all.

Categories
tools ttrpgs

rpg tools and tech

There’s not an awful lot of writing out there on what you should use to help run or play RPGs. Most of the time, you’ll search for something specific (“mapmaking software”, “NPC generator PF2e”), and you will end up building up a toolbox of things that you find useful. This is me writing down everything I’ve found in the years that I’ve been playing. Some of it is free, some of it is paid for – I’ll include which ones are which. (Asterisk means it’s free)

There’s a rule that I’ve run into in my job as a Data Engineer/ML Engineer, which is that if a tool says it does everything, it probably doesn’t, or it just does it poorly. At time of writing, there is no magic bullet software that gives you everything out of the box for RPGs – I’d much rather use eight tools that do what they do very well, than one platform that does it all but badly.

This isn’t a top 10 list, or something where I’m throwing in everything and the kitchen sink: this is stuff that I actively use when running RPGs. If there’s a problem I have with it, I’ll tell you.


Game Engine

FoundryVTT

I’ve been using Roll20 since 2014. I cut my teeth playing RPGs in person, so it might have even been the first time that I played an RPG online. At that time, it was a relatively new (launched in 2012) service, which offered something that I don’t know existed before then: a sound platform to play RPGs on which was free. It was easy to use, and while it was somewhat lacking in functions, it was extremely easy to sling a roll20 link at my friends to get a game going. It had a wide selection of game systems supported, with the list being constantly added to by the community, meaning it only lacked the more niche games.

This is perhaps a bit disingenuous, but I’d say that it hasn’t really changed since then. I’m sure someone can come out and mention a raft of features that it has gotten since launch, but to me, it has all the problems that it did when I started using it.

  • A website design that was fine in 2014 but is now very outdated by modern standards.
  • A lack of responsiveness – everything feels delayed and painful.
  • Pretty woeful asset management, in terms of finding images that you’ve uploaded, and other data.
  • Playing audio is a chore, sometimes working, sometimes not.
  • It’s a centralised service, with all the problems that being dependent on a central service brings (downtime, security, closed source)
  • This is not from my personal experience as I haven’t tried, but I’ve heard making sheets for systems is a pretty awful time.
  • Limited and stilted GM tools (copying a token doesn’t copy rotation, a r g h, journal/notetaking has the absolute bearest of functionality)

This is ignoring all the nonsense that seems to follow Roll20, but I could keep going.

Release Notes for the Foundry Virtual Tabletop 0.7.9 update version
FVTT’s 0.7.9 release (latest at time of writing)

Bluntly, FoundryVTT is just a better piece of software. In my eight months of using it every week, I’ve never had a moment of “gosh this was better in Roll20”. Everything I said above as a negative for Roll20, is a strength for FoundryVTT. However, there’s two big hurdles for it:

  1. The price. (50 dollars plus VAT where applicable)
  2. The learning curve and setup.

If you’re expecting it to be a similar amount of effort to setup as Roll20, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a bit of work to be done, depending on what solution you’re going for (self-hosted, managed service, dedicated server), but it’s definitely surmountable. Generally speaking, if there’s a problem, you can google it and get a solution. If you’re completely tech-averse, it might be worth looking at the managed solution/partner hosting options where they handle that for you.

As for the price, I’d much more in favour of paying a larger sum once, than a small sum until the end of time, especially if I’ve made content dependent on “premium features”. Obviously it’s an immense privilege of mine to be able to drop 50+ bucks on RPG software, but I do not regret it one bit.

There’s too much to talk about with FoundryVTT, I’ll do another post on it at some point in the future. I’m not intentionally trying to be pithy when I say that it’s changed the way I run games for the better, and I’ve never had a complaint from one of my players about it. Everyone prefers it to Roll20. It’s a smoother experience, more feature rich, powered by open source contributions from a big community. It does everything that I want for a game engine, and I can’t see myself not using it anytime soon.

Watch this space for another, in-detail post.

Map-making

Wonderdraft

I love making maps. I’ve been making maps since I was a kid, and I make maps as an adult. For me, there’s a few things that a piece of mapmaking software needs to have.

  • A reliable, modern, low-learning curve UI.
  • A solid selection of drawing tools. It doesn’t need to be photoshop, but it needs to have firm fundamentals.
  • A sizable selection of high quality pre-drawn assets that share an art style.
  • Support for additional, imported assets
  • Preferably non web-based. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a luddite, but for drawing tools, I’ll always take a dedicated application on my PC over the hassle of a browser in the way.
  • A reasonable pricing structure.

Wonderdraft ticks all of these boxes. It’s cheap, purchasable through a trustworthy mechanism (Humble Bundle), and does everything I want from a global mapping tool. Where it begins to fall down is in the regional mapping scale (city details, county-level stuff) – I primarily use it for worlds and continents, and avoid doing things like city design in it. Here’s some stuff I’ve made in it:

A region I very imaginatively named “The Kingdom” before being told that was ridiculous, and renamed to “The Kingdom of Meridian” – far more reasonable.
Wizards and Druids who hate each other and fight over islands, mapped.

For the scale of map that I want to draw, it suits it perfectly. Naturally, it’s going to run into an issue (if you can call it that) of “same-face”, where you’ll realise that a lot of maps made in the software look similar. This is an advantage for maps made for the same world, but might be a bit weird if you’re trying to do a campaign with a very different vibe.

Dungeondraft

It’s Wonderdraft but for battle/dungeon scale maps. The UI is very similar (unsurprisingly), the layout/tech underlying it is very similar. It’s much more unstable than Wonderdraft, and much rougher around the edges – this is because it’s a much younger product. All of the requirements I listed above apply here, but there’s one incredible thing about Dungeondraft that puts it above other software I’ve used in the past.

It integrates beautifully with FoundryVTT due to the genius module of Dungeondraft Importer. This turns the normally annoying task of aligning a grid with a background PNG, sorting out lighting, line of sight things like walls and doors into a literal three-click job. Click Dungeondraft Import, select the .ddvtt exported format file, import as scene, done. This is so fast that I’ve actually managed to cook up maps in the software as my players were travelling to a location.

Are you going to get professional artist quality battlemaps? No. Are you going to get extremely servicable maps that don’t take hours to make? Yes. Here’s some examples:

Mushroomy, leafy cavern thing.
An entrance to a tomb, imaginatively named “The Tomb Entrance”. Ignore the white space, as the players can’t see that.

I think if you wanted to get more stylised maps, or more dramatic maps, you’re going to need to pick up a pen/paper/copy of illustrator. As I said, the only thing holding it back right now is the instability and bugs, which it has a few of. Save often.

Worldographer

https://i2.wp.com/worldographer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/screenshot.jpg
“What the”

I know what you’re thinking. “That looks horrendous”. “Wait, between Dungeondraft and Wonderdraft, what’s this meant to do?”. Like many DMs, I am sometimes possessed by a powerful, destructive craving to do a hexcrawl campaign. This is a mapmaking tool that enables specifically that. I can sense your next question – “can’t you just create a map in Wonderdraft and put a hex overlay on it?”. Yes, and Wonderdraft actually includes that as a function. Note that I didn’t say this was a tool to enable hex-based maps, I said this was a tool to enable hexdrawl campaigns.

The reason you want to use this, is because you do not want to be thinking to yourself “is this beautifully rendered hex a marsh, or is it a swamp?”. You want that distinction to be clear, so that you can spend less time thinking about what a hex is meant to be, and more time thinking about what that hex, and the other four hundred million hexes on the map contain. Worldographer makes that distinction clear, painfully so, and gives you a load of other functions related to world-generation and notekeeping. There IS a free version of the software with some functionality removed (like notekeeping), so I’m not sure I’d suggest using the free version other than to test it out.

A map of mine, ignore the scrawling.

Misc

TokenTool*

This piece of software is just perfect. You know how I said that I’d much rather have eight tools that do their specific functions well? TokenTool is that, personified. What does TokenTool do? It puts borders on images. Does it do anything else? Not really. It can put backgrounds on them as well, solid colours, gradients or other images.

What makes it amazing? It behaves exactly as you would expect it would. Can you drag images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste out of it? Yes (uh, at least, I think so). Do you have to download images to put them into it? No.

I use it to put specific backgrounds and borders on my tokens, and that’s all I use it for. Best of all, it’s completely free. Amazing.

yEd*

yEd - Graph Editor

Keeping on the theme of “incredibly specific software”, yEd is a graph editor. It allows you to create flowgraphs, which is incredibly useful for the more involved campaigns where you need to keep track of relationships, clues, whatever. I’ve used it for Call of Cthulhu, Dogs in the Vineyard, Monster of the Week and more. It’s a bit rough around the edges at times, and it’s not as shiny and friendly as something like Microsoft Visio (paid for) – but at least I don’t feel like I’m at work using it.

Is the UI really that old? Yes. It’s no frills, but often that’s what you want in something like a graph editor. It is considerably better than something like Google Drawings for this, and it’s free.

donjon.bin.sh*

Medieval Demographics and Tavern Generator

There should be some law akin to Godwin’s Law but for donjon. Something like, the longer a discussion of tools for TTRPGs continues, the likelihood of someone mentioning a donjon tool approaches one. Well, here we are, it’s done now.

I’m going to call out two of the tools that I use the most frequently, though in reality there’s probably something in there for everybody. The Tavern Generator is extremely good for when your players want to know about the other tavern in the town. You know the one. It’s not the one with your interesting NPCs, with your story hooks, with a bar brawl just waiting to burst out – because they didn’t like the name of the place (calling it the Gilded Goose? What were you thinking). It’s that other tavern, the one you’re furiously trying to will into existence with every neuron in your brain.

The Tavern Generator gives you that. Sometimes it goes a bit extra:

“Okay”

Otherwise, it gives you a perfectly sensible base with which you can offload some of that mental processing. Speaking of offloading mental processing: do you know how many buckle makers your town needs? No? Neither do I, but the Medieval Demographics Tool does. Is that going to be an important demographic for your town? Probably not, but it’s very useful for sanity checking what you’ve done already. If you’ve got a village of 500 people, having thirty guards is probably unreasonable. I wouldn’t suggest ever trying a campaign where you attempt to fit every single job that the tool suggests into a town, but it helps keep us on the straight and narrow.

In-Person

I usually consider myself a split 50:50 online vs in-person DM. I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to both, and hold them in different places in my heart. However, in-person right now has the disadvantage of “we’re in a global pandemic”, so this is a section for after that whole thing’s cleared up. A lot of this stuff is going to be so egregious that you might roll your eyes, but hey, people have the fancy silverware for when people come round for dinner, I have the fancy…orc…tokens.

Elgato Stream Deck

Marketing image of the stream deck buttons ascending into space.

I’m a huge fan of audio in my games. While people might wrinkle their noses at the idea of introducing “impure, physical things” into their astonishingly cerebral game, I am not above playing spooky background music when something spooky is happening. Previously when I DM’d in person, I would walk over to my PC, put on a youtube video of some music, then walk back. Yes, I bought this device to not have to do that. Please, give me a chance to redeem myself in your eyes.

There’s two things that the Stream Deck has, that make it perfect for me.

  • Programmable physical buttons to play/stop certain sounds.
  • The ability to add background images to those buttons.

This means that I can have a button on the deck that says “Carriage Noise” with a little icon of a carriage behind it. I press that button, and a looping sound file of carriage wheels on a road begin to play out of my speakers. The stream deck is small enough to fit behind my GM screen, which means that I can now play a sound as I describe something spooky happening! No longer is there an awkward pause as I stand up, walk over to my PC and play some music!

OK, sure, there’s more reasonable soundboard software that enables this if you’ve got a smartphone or a tablet. But I enjoy the physicality of the stream deck, and the simplicity of the setup (no internet connection required, among other things). This is so far down the “must have” list that it’s almost invisible, but don’t knock it.

Campaign Coins…Coins

Big Bag Ol Coins

I bought a bag of Trade Bars from this website a long time ago, and they’ve been a staple of my RPG cupboard ever since. Real metal, really lovely quality, great art. Have they been extremely useful? Not really, but they (like many of the other things I use) add a level of physicality that I adore. Nothing says “lecherous public official” like handing a player a bag of coins and asking them to do something unspeakable.

Bear in mind that these are coming all the way from Australia, so don’t expect speedy shipping.


That’s it for now. I also make extensive use of Google Docs and Sheets, but I imagine most people are capable of finding a word processor/note taking application that suits them, so I didn’t include it here. I also haven’t included anything to do with figures or miniatures – which probably requires a post on its own.

This is obviously going to be a living list, so I’m going to revisit it occasionally with minor additions. Otherwise, there you go.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 3)

the storyteller

Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

We’re now entering the part of the posts where you’re talking to me, talking about stuff I actually believe. I’m going to put a golden caveat here, the most golden caveat of all. If your players know that you’re fudging, and you have told them so, then that’s absolutely fine. I’m not so much of an asshole as to tell you that the fun you’re having, with the consent of everyone at the table, is illegitimate. These posts are for the would-be DM who’s wondering if they should, or the DM that currently is and hasn’t told their players.

This is about why you shouldn’t do it.


dice as a partner

Allow me to make the first hot take of the blog. You and the dice will tell a better story than just you. You should not see the randomness introduced by dice rolling as an obstacle to the story you want to tell – you should see it as a force that gives you fresh and exciting perspective on what would have otherwise been a duller experience. Let’s go back to our example of the Mines of Moria.

Would you have let Gandalf fall?

This is a serious question. What if we didn’t? What if Gandalf never left the party, never had a climactic battle with the Balrog, never succumbed to his wounds and died, never returned as Gandalf the White? I think we can all agree that the series of events that come from Gandalf falling from the bridge are compelling, exciting, and make Gandalf a richer character. In this instance, Gandalf’s “failure” did not diminish the story, but immensely enhanced it. In this way, the rolling of a dice gives us an opportunity to create something we otherwise wouldn’t – it challenges us to think of possibilities that were otherwise unthinkable. It makes us ask questions of things we previously thought unquestionable. What if the players don’t work with the town guard, and instead, they attack them? What if their attempt to argue their case in court does not lead to freedom, and instead leads to a death sentence?

I feel that where this can cause problems is where people have overplanned. In a game where the DM has taken it upon themselves to pre-plan every possible encounter, every possible branch in the road, the dice can feel like an obstacle. Now, where the dice should allow for interesting developments in the story being told, it becomes an odious task; another path that needs lampposts, houses, trees and names. But players do not play your DM notes. They do not play your A4 pages filled with characters, timelines and locations. They play what happens in the game, which happens one moment at a time. By reacting to the players, instead of attempting to control them, we can have Gandalf fall and create a deeper, richer world by opening up your space of possibilities.

When you do this, you’ll see a significant change in how you DM. You’ll notice that your thinking shifts away from attempting to control the player’s journey through a world, and instead to how that world actually is. What’s the punishment for attacking a town guard? What’s below that bridge for when they fail an acrobatics check? How do the bad guys actually operate? Your world begins to develop actual depth: not illusory depth, a charade that allows the players to do anything as long as it’s what you planned, but a world that is logically consistent, and reacts in sensible ways. Armed with a world that acts in these ways, we enable coherent ad libbing.1

Another good thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you say.

August 1922, Tampa (FL) Morning Tribune, pg. 4, col. 6

this is not your story

This is the most obvious response to the argument. It’s a cold one, but it’s true nonetheless. RPGs are not the medium for you to tell a predefined story, and it isn’t a coincidence that many of the frequent concepts that come with an RPG (uncertainty/variance, players, rerolling characters) are antithetical to traditional linear storytelling. Your players are not an audience. There was not a chance for the reader to enter the Mines of Moria and lend Gandalf a hand, there was not an opportunity for the audience to climb the barricades and warn the students in Les Misérables, and there was not a moment that the viewer could get in on the action in The Big Short.

RPGs are a game. Games are interactive2. The interactive element in role-playing games is (commonly) in the control of characters by players of that game. Sorry if this sounds obnoxious, I am almost telling you how to suck eggs, but when framed in this language it becomes clearer to me why fudging for the sake of storytelling is so misguided. The “problem” that fudging is trying to solve here is that your story may be misaligned with the dice rolls you’re receiving, but do you know what else might be misaligned? The players! We reserve our hatred of uncertainty for the dice, confident that everyone at the table will play their part as we intended. We’ll erect as many invisible walls as needed to make sure they’re funneled down the route we’ve chosen, for our world is a maze of glass, with innumerable visible opportunities, but only one possible path.

Alright, I’ll dial it back.

RPGs does not have a “author” role, because everyone at the table is a author. We have our different domains, our different regions of the story. The players are responsible for their characters, and usually their character-adjacent bits and pieces (NPCs, property, backstory), and the DM is (usually) responsible for the gaps around them. One of the more frequent additions to RPGs is the ability for the players to add their own detail to the world, given mechanically via a dice roll. (Wrath and Glory is a recent RPG that does this explicitly3) When we say that we want to tell “our story”, this necessarily comes at the expense of the other players at the table, who might disagree on what that story should be (and have control as to where that story goes). You cannot tell a story that your players do not want to tell, you can only tell the story that you create, together.

god of the gaps

For me, the most tragic thing about fudging is that it’s unimaginative, and unnecessary. Changing the result of a dice roll is like a god changing the colour on a traffic light so they can go through it – the DM ultimately controls the game world, and thus, ultimately controls the circumstances by which the dice rolls arrive. If we look at D&D 5e again, the rules might stipulate that the goblin gets to roll a d20 to attempt to hit an adventurer, but you put the goblin there, you put the cave there, you gave the ability for the adventurers to enter that cave. There are systems where these things might be generated by dice roll, but in most mainstream systems they fit within the DM’s control.

If you didn’t want the adventurers to fall when crossing the bridge, or convincing the guard to let them into the bank, why did you set up circumstances such that they could? You could have made the bridge sturdier, you could have described how the guard is drunk, and how they have the appearances of a wild night before. Changing just the result of the dice is lazy, and if you’re someone who considers themselves an adept writer or storyteller, you should be able to come up with narratively satisfying solutions to these prolems without fudging. The main answer to why you’re doing it, despite having this level of control, is that you’re actually using dice as a source of tension. While you could have made the bridge sturdier, you wanted the tension of the dice, so you asked them to roll for it. That isn’t a “satisfying story” concern, and it’s something we will get onto in a later post.

Just one last note on this. On the “falling off a bridge” example, there’s absolutely nowhere in the rules of a system that state a player character falling off a bridge has ONE attempt to prevent their death. Most systems give you absolutely immense scope to avoid this stuff, and very few rolls (if any) are truly save-or-die. If a character fails the acrobatics roll to cross the gap, maybe they fall just short and end up dangling from a plank, requiring another roll to pull them up. Maybe they fall into a spider’s web, and are now imperiled by the spiders therein. It’s usually extremely bad practice anyway to hinge life and death on a single dice roll, and by setting up situations where a single success averts death, we avoid characters dying out of the blue in situations that might actually frustrate the player.

die hard

Character death is a major area where fudging occurs. You’ll frequently see this in “actual play” podcasts, where characters have been written, merchandise has been created, and a repartie has been established. To have a character die an ignoble death would be problematic for telling a serialised story. If a fan just bought a t-shirt with “Hoblas the Fighter Rules!” written on it, how do you think they’ll feel when Hoblas takes a javelin to the throat, thrown by the grottiest and most insignificant of goblins. I have seen a word-for-word defence of fudging this with “I would be a bad storyteller if I let a character die in this way”. Ignoring the “storytelling” part of that, which we’ve covered above, the ease at which characters die is controlled by two things.

  1. The DM, who determines the circumstances by which lethality arrived.
  2. The system rules, that determine the procedure by which a character can die.

Both of these things are within our control. You chose the system, you chose the ruleset to follow. You weren’t prevented from reading the rules for dying ahead of time, left with a sealed envelope that contained the precious two pages explaining the brutal effortlessness with which characters can lose their lives. If you’re playing D&D5e, you know that a character hitting zero HP goes unconscious, and starts to make dying checks. You and your players agreed that these are the rules by which a character can die – if it was too easy, then you can agree with your players to adjust them. In fact, many systems include optional rules to adjust the ease of character death4. The only reason you wouldn’t do this if you had a story that you wanted to tell, is if you wanted to create artificial tension.

In addition to this, if you’re playing a game system where death is commonplace and mechanically easy, you’re probably playing the wrong system. Old School Revival Systems (OSR/OSRS) where death can just be a case of hitting zero hitpoints, were not made to tell the story of a group of legendary characters and their epic journey (not immediately anyway). Similarly, Call of Cthulhu and similar cosmic horror investigation systems are not intending to give you a TV show, with a main character who’s nigh-on indestructible. Life is cheap, and characters are made to be created and killed. In these systems, the “story” is not about the characters, who are thrown into a meatgrinder and slain frequently, it is about the journey and experience of the players.

I’d note here that in D&D 5e, death is incredibly hard to come by. The mechanics of the three death saving throws, combined with the ability for healing magic to instantly revive characters, means that characters will only die when the party dies, most of the time. Aside from this, an unconscious character being hit which automatically causes two death throw failures, is the only other viable path5 which, you as a DM have control over. That doesn’t mean you have control over the roll of the dice, it means you had control over the goblin that stabbed them with a spear. If you didn’t want them to die, why did you hit them? Is it, perhaps, because you wanted the artificial tension of them thinking they could die?

tl;dr

If you’re not using the variety that dice rolls give you, you’re not being as creative as you could be. The randomness introduced by the dice gives us immense creative power and license, which we should be using. It also allows us to offload work onto the dice, using our brain for more important things.

If you’re coming into an RPG with a preconceived idea of where the story will go (not a general notion, but a ‘script’), then you shouldn’t be playing an RPG. You should be writing a book.

If you didn’t want the characters to be imperiled in a certain situation, then you shouldn’t have set up the circumstances by which they were imperiled. You control the world.

If you wanted death to be harder because your characters are important for the story, then you shouldn’t play a system where death is an eminent possibility. You should agree with your players that the rules for death will be changed, or play a different system.

The stories that you and your players tell will be better if you don’t fudge. That’s my firm belief, and I would really encourage you to try it if you don’t believe me. Do it. Play a campaign where you say to yourself that you’re going to do it without fudging, and see where that campaign goes. I guarantee you’ll look back on it fondly.

Footnotes

1. If you think of ad-libbing in the actual theatre sense, it (usually) begins with someone setting the scene. “You’re a doctor in an overbooked clinic” or “a waiter in a restaurant full of nuns”. When we start to think about how the world operates, we create the “scene” that the DM then performs in (which is then made much easier for that fact)

2. As someone who studied philosophy of language, the idea of trying to define anything about “games” is pretty painful, but I’m staking my flag here.

3. It also has the worst rulebook that I have ever read for a published game. I’m not sure if they’ve fixed it with the revised edition (created by a different team), but good lord it is a study in how not to lay out a rulebook.

4. D&D5e has an ‘Epic’ fantasy ruleset where short rests and long rests are more plentiful – typically, running out of resources like healing and magic is what kills a party, rather than instant death from a creature/trap.

5. This led to a rather awkward moment in one of the earlier episodes of Critical Role Season 2, where the DM was setting up a cone attack (with a dex saving throw) from one of the enemies, only to realise that the attack would hit an unconscious character (which automatically fail dex saving throws) and kill them instantly. Naturally, the attack was then adjusted in a nonsensical direction where that character was coincidentally avoided! Hooray.