I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Brainstorming: Initiative

Today I felt like doing some brainstorming on initiative. Just throwing some ideas around to see what works; do not expect much organization or refinement from this post.

My goals for this exercise are:

- Initiative order is random, therefore unpredictable.
- The system should allow for the quickest characters to act more often, because “who acts first” is often unimportant.
- Weapon speed, or action speed, is also important for allowing people to take more actions.
- Everybody gets a least one (or a few) actions every once in a while, since I find “losing your action” to be terrible dull.
- Bookkeeping must be kept at a minimum, or be managed by the initiative system itself (instead of counters, apps, etc).

So here are my random thoughts about initiative for today. Bonuses and penalties are all examples that I have just made up for no particular reason.

1. d20

Everybody rolls a d20, adds DEX, all speed modifiers (weapon speed, etc.). Higher number acts first, as usual. Let's say the best result is 18. After taking his turn, the character rolls initiative again, but this time he gets no DEX or other modifiers; instead, he gets a penalty equal to the difference between his result (18) and 20 (which is -2 in this example; had his result been 26, it would be a +6 bonus instead). If the new result is 1 or greater, he gets to act again in that round. The new initiative should be lower than the current one (18), even if the roll is higher - or maybe the maximum should be something like current initiative -4. Speed modifiers apply to this maximum.

To delay, just adjust the number down as often as you want. If you wait until turn 12 to act, you get a -8 penalty to the next roll, and so on. To change your action, roll initiative again in your turn, using the same rules. In the case of a draw, whoever acted more recently acts last.

Use the d20 to track initiative. Nobody can act more than once at a turn greater than 20.

Example: Gary says his character will move 30 feet (-5) and attack with his knife (+2). His DEX bonus is +1. He rolls 15, so his result is 13 (15-5+2+1). After attacking, he gets to roll initiative again, to attack with his knife once more. Now he gets a -7 penalty (13-20), and, because he wants to attack with his knife again, a +2 bonus, so the total penalty is -5. He rolls a 11, which means he gets to attack again at round 6 (11-5). Had he rolled 17 or more, he would act on round 12, as he cannot act on round 13 again.

2. Dice pools

Roll a bunch of dice (say, 3d6, but probably more dice would work better). Bonuses to DEX can be used to modify dice (a +2 can turn a single 4 into a 6, or two 3s into two 4s, or even lower the result a die, as desired by the player) or break ties, or even add extra dice (a single dice for a +3 bonus, two for +7, three for +10, etc). There is 6 or more separated rounds, starting with round 6 (if nobody wants to use more than one die), then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Whoever rolled a 6 can act on round 6 (or alter it to 5). Dice can be added up (use a 4 and a 2 at the same time to act on round 6, for example). No one can act twice in the same round (or can they?). After every action, round, anyone who has acted loses the dice that were used. Everyone gets to re-roll any dice that is left if they wish to do so, but if the number rolled is greater the current round, the dice cannot be used in it.

Example: Dave says rolls 4, 4 and 2. He has a +3 DEX bonus, so he can roll an extra die. His final result is 5, 4, 4, 2. He gets to act four times, or he can add dice together to act before other characters.

Weapon speed? Movement penalties? Not too sure, but probably they are applied after the dice are already on the table. In turn 5, for example, someone that has rolled a 3 might be able to attack with a +2 speed knife.

D20 dice pools could be used in a similar way,

3. Multiple dice

You could use ascending initiative and multiple dice to create a random, yet still somewhat predictable, combat order. After you act on round 7, for example, you decide what to do next: quick actions use a d6, regular actions a d8, longer actions a d10 and so on. Add the result to the current round to see in which round you can take a new action.

You could use weapon damage for this: 1d4 for knives, 1d10 for big axes, etc. The idea is that you don't need a different system for weapon speed. Using weapon damage by itself would make smaller weapons overpowered, so something like “weapon damage+5” would probably work better.

4. Playing cards

Playing cards can be useful for tracking initiative. We could do four rounds, one for every suit - everybody gets to act at least once every round, and probably no more than twice - first, cards of the respective suit are resolved, then any card can be used with suits being ignored. The number of cards drawn is defined by DEX. Jokers and figures may have all kinds of special effects, probably interrupting another character's actions.

The best part about using playing cards is that they can be kept hidden, which might add a whole new tactical dimension to these combats. For example, an ace of spades can be used to counter any card of the same suit, but if nobody uses such a card in the spades turn, this power is lost.

5. Movement

I would really like movement to be taken on a “step by step” basis, as long as it is important. The way movement usually happens on a grid feels too abstract to me: “I won initiative so I walk 30 feet towards my enemy and attack him twice while he does nothing”. I would say something like -1 on a d6 or -4 on a d20 for taking half movement (no idea on how to do this with playing cards). Same for drawing weapons, preparing spells, etc. It would take the tactical run to stop the magic-user to the next level of complexity.

This would allow characters with a higher DEX to move around more. Seems like a good idea. On the other hand, movement cannot be too random; one can understand the concept of not being able to find an opportunity to attack, but not being able to move because of a bad roll takes more explaining. Well, if we can accept it in Monopoly, there certainly must be a way to do it in D&D. Movement for those who aren't directly involved in combat should be independent of initiative to avoid absurd situations.

6. Defenses

Characters could use their initiative to defend themselves somehow, and still expect to act again… if they are quick or lucky. Again, this adds extra depth to the system. It can also be useful to allow stuff that I really enjoy and can hardly find in published RPGs, such as creating a tactical balance between offense and defense, including the possibility of defending yourself until you see an opportunity to strike back as a viable way to beat a slower, stronger opponent.

7. Verisimilitude? Abstraction?

After writing all this stuff I realize that some kind of verisimilitude is a big motivation. I have a hard time seeing combat as an orderly, predictable thing - specially with the short rounds that are used nowadays. Looking at any combat sport and you'll see that taking turns to beat on each other is too far from what real fighters do. Abstract combat, with 1-minute rounds, worked well on OD&D, but keeping the same rules for shorter, less abstract rounds makes things stranger.

8. Balance?

Obviously, using DEX to act more often can quickly make it better than every other ability, specially if you already use it for finesse and missile weapons, AC and saves - which I don't. There are good reasons to use BAB or other traits for initiative, or using DEX only as a tiebreaker. If you are going to use one of these systems, balance should be a concern, specially "spotlight balance", as a badly implemented system would leave everybody waiting while a single player acts several times.

9. Reality check

All this ideas seem a bit too complex for my own tastes. They seem fun for “combat as minigame” sessions, and I could really use something like that on a grid, but I don't do that often. I would take such random systems over tick-based initiative, because I feel it makes things absurdly predictable for the fighters involved. In practice, I often use narrative-based initiative - whoever decides to attack, attacks first. And I allow players to take multiple actions, but only in their own turns, which makes thing more organized (but not always more fun). Yet, I do like to play around with initiative systems, as you can see form this post, and sooner or later I'll turn this mess, or part of it, into a full-fledged combat system.

If you already know a detailed and unpredictable initiative system, think the whole idea to be faulty, or just want to contribute to the discussion, I would love to hear your opinion.

Friday, February 20, 2015

When not to roll, and why examples are important

Having spent a few posts writing about dice, I feel like adding a quick note on when not to roll dice. You have probably heard a few takes on the subject already. Here's mine.

Many people will tell you that you should only roll dice in very specific circumstances. For example, only when there's risk, uncertainty, unpredictability, opposition, etc. I agree - dice rolling should be reserved for a few situations, while most circumstances should be managed with conversation, automatic successes, and so on.

The thing is, that kind of advice is heard so often it makes you wonder why people are rolling so many dice in the first place.

The reason, I believe, is that although most games will tell you upfront when to avoid rolling the dice, they will also tell you the opposite, over and over again, albeit implicitly.

Let's look at the "take 10" rule, for example. It says:

When your character is not being threatened or distracted, you may choose to take 10. Instead of rolling 1d20 for the skill check, calculate your result as if you had rolled a 10. For many routine tasks, taking 10 makes them automatically successful. Distractions or threats (such as combat) make it impossible for a character to take 10. In most cases, taking 10 is purely a safety measure —you know (or expect) that an average roll will succeed but fear that a poor roll might fail, so you elect to settle for the average roll (a 10). Taking 10 is especially useful in situations where a particularly high roll wouldn’t help.

The fact that not rolling when there's no distraction or threat is optional is problematic. Rolling is assumed even for routine, mundane tasks, when it should be the opposite (you might have the option of rolling the dice if taking particular risks, for example). Even if we accept that this option will be taken by the players most of the time, the whole game have tons of examples of rolling dice, and very few examples on using skills or abilities without rolling.

Like many books, the SRD mentions taking 10 a couple of times, but mentions rolling dice hundreds of times.

Take the Craft skill, for example. Since the skill is mostly related to to mundane, harmless tasks, it would make sense to give examples of taking 10 or otherwise ignoring dice when describing it. Instead, we get this:

To determine how much time and money it takes to make an item, follow these steps.
  1. Find the item’s price. Put the price in silver pieces (1 gp = 10 sp).
  2. Find the DC from the table below.
  3. Pay one-third of the item’s price for the cost of raw materials.
  4. Make an appropriate Craft check representing one week’s work. If the check succeeds, multiply your check result by the DC. If the result × the DC equals the price of the item in sp, then you have completed the item. (If the result × the DC equals double or triple the price of the item in silver pieces, then you’ve completed the task in one-half or one-third of the time. Other multiples of the DC reduce the time in the same manner.) If the result × the DC doesn’t equal the price, then it represents the progress you’ve made this week. Record the result and make a new Craft check for the next week. Each week, you make more progress until your total reaches the price of the item in silver pieces.
So, in theory, you can take 10 for such mundane tasks. In practice, you get long, complicated examples on how to resolve this task with a d20, with very wonky results, not only because of the "swingyness" of the d20 in this circumstance but also because it leads to a world in which a shoemaker cannot be sure how long it will take them to make a shoe.

Why not just spend 1/3 of the cost of the item in materials, and them just adding 10 plus your skill rank in silver pieces every week?

Appraise gets the same treatment:

You can appraise common or well-known objects with a DC 12 Appraise check. Failure means that you estimate the value at 50% to 150% (2d6+3 times 10%,) of its actual value.

This means that an ordinary person doesn't now the price of a common item much of the time. Commerce must be a very strange activity in this world. And should you be really rolling to know the value of a well-known object?

Another thing that bothers me is that many "mundane" skills have rules on trying again, implying that you would roll the dice the first time you tried. Take knowledge, for example:

Answering a question within your field of study has a DC of 10 (for really easy questions), 15 (for basic questions), or 20 to 30 (for really tough questions).

Try Again
No. The check represents what you know, and thinking about a topic a second time doesn’t let you know something that you never learned in the first place.

So, yeah, it sounds like you are supposed to roll the dice and, if you fail, bad luck - you have never learned basic questions within your field of study. If you have a +5 skill, you have never learned 45% of thew basic questions in that field.

I used the SRD, but you can find examples in any game. Just browsing through GURPS 4e, for example, I can find a suggestion of making a Driving/IQ roll "for basic map reading" and "to recall rules of the road" (p. 188), although I'm sure there are generic rules for NOT rolling in routine situations.

Again, you might say that nobody really uses this rules, but my point is that, time after time, these game lose good opportunities to give examples of NOT rolling.

When rolling the dice is just a bad idea...

To give you a glimpse on an alternate way of doing things, consider encumbrance and STR: most games explicit tell you how much your character can carry based on this trait, and rolling to see how much you can lift is seldom mentioned.

There are many possible solutions. Replacing a few examples of "trying again" for a few "ordinarily, you MUST take 10 when using this skill" could solve some problems (including not trying again, since the result would be exactly the same unless circumstances have changed).

But what I would really like to see are more examples of getting results without rolling.

Here is a quick take on knowledge, for no particular system:

Skill + INT
4: You know all the basics within your field of study.
8: You also know little-known information on basic topics, and basic information about little-known topics.
12: You also know little-known information about little-known topics, very obscure information about basic topics, and basic information on very obscure topics.
16: You know all that it currently known by experts within this field.
20: You may have a few theories of your own that would take the field even further. Time to test them!

Synergy, circumstantial and equipment modifiers, a bonus for appropriate backgrounds, and other modifiers still apply. You may still roll when debating other experts, searching for a book in a library provided that the library is currently on fire, and so on.

If every "routine" skill or task had a few examples like that, there would be little need to constantly remind players that you don't need to roll for everything.

Note: for a particularly good take on skills, see Hack & Slash. The author's notes on skills were an important inspirations for this post.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dungeons & Dice, part IV - Using dice pools

This is the last post (at least for now) in a series about using dice in D&D (you may wish to read parts one, two and three). In this part I'll talk about some house rules for dice pools that I use in my games.

As I said in part two, one thing I really like about dice pools is the tangibility of dice. If you use multiple dice, you can assign a different meaning to each one - one die for skill, another for advantageous circumstances, and so on. You can do the same even after rolling, picking any extra dice left on the table and adding qualities to your success (or failure): more damage, more flair, less time spent, and so on.

You can also move dice around in lots of ways. If you use fate points, hero points or a similar mechanic you can have dice of different color in lieu of chips. Instead of granting a bonus to another player, you can pass a die to him. There are also ways you can move dice from one skill to another or from the attack roll to damage - adding a little risk-reward mini-game in which you can trade dice (before rolling) for a more impressive result in case of success.

The tangibility makes bonuses, skills and circumstances feel more relevant, more "real". When you use lots of dice you can physically see the resources and talents you are putting into a task. A stronger opponent can be recognized not only by an numerical bonus, but by a obviously bigger dice pool.

For me, what is really important about the system I'm using isn't that it makes you think about such things: it's the exact opposite. Moving dice around this way feels easier and more natural than calculating margins, bonuses, skills, modifiers, and so on. It doesn't require much thinking.

To build a dice pool, you can start with the usual die (I use a d20 or 3d6) and add more dice for each skill, proficiency, advantage, background, special equipment or other resource the character has at the moment. I will write more about how my house rules for such things in separated posts - basically, I use a bonus for BAB or ability but extra dice for skills and circumstances - but you can use dice pools with your own, of course.

There are multiple ways of using a dice pool system for D&D. Of the many options, two immediately come to mind: d20s and d6s. A d20 dice pool seems natural because the d20 is the prototypical D&D die, and because the current edition of D&D uses a couple of d20s in some circumstances. A d6 dice pool, on the other hand, has the advantages of availability and price (all the more important when using handfuls of dice), and has been used since Chainmail in some situations. Both are good, so let's see how we can use each. Bear in mind that the examples below are for illustration and inspiration, as I haven't tested them extensively enough to say the math is 100% solid. 

When using multiple d20s, picking just one for the result is usually easier than adding them up, so you don't have to solve things like 17+9+15, which might take more than a couple of seconds. Just find your target number (I'll use "TN" for the number you must roll to succeed), and see if any die is higher than it - if it is, the task was successful. If many dice were higher that the TN, each extra die beyond the first adds new qualities to the roll (more damage, help a friend, less time spent, etc). If the TN is greater than 20, you must roll at least one 20 and you can add a flat bonus to each extra dice that is higher than a given threshold - say, add +5 for each dice that rolled 10 or more.

You can do something similar with d6s. This time, you add them all together, but you must start with the lowest numbers in the pool. Each die that is left after you reach the TN adds a new quality to the roll.

In both cases, it is useful to have "exploding" dice to allow the higher TNs to be reached. For every d20 and for every couple of d6s that come up with the maximum number, I'll add another die to the pool. On the other hand, a "natural 1" only happens if all dice come up as one, which will make catastrophic failures very rare for skilled characters in advantageous circumstances.

If you want a rule for disadvantageous circumstances, just subtract dice from the pool until there is only one d20 or 3d6 left. Further negative circumstances make you add more dice and the using the worst d20 (or the worst 3d6). If you fail, each additional dice you would use to reach the TN now creates a negative effect. For example, if you need to roll 15 and you roll 7, 9 and 16, you must take the 7 (a failure) and the 9 would add negative effect (the character falls prone, drops an item, etc).

In my own games, I use a mixed dice pool in "high action" scenes - start with a d20 then add multiple d6s. After rolling, first use the d20 and them add the d6s, as described for the d6 dice pool, above. A d6 is a nice bonus to add to a d20 - averaging 3.5, d6s are relevant much of the time, similarly to a +1 bonus on a d6 and a +4 bonus on a d20 (and also not far from "roll 2d20, pick highest"), which are both very common rules in some editions of D&D and its clones.

So, there you go. This is my take on the dice we use for D&D, at least for the time being. What is yours?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dungeons & Dice, part III - Comparing sizes

In parts one and two of this series, we mentioned the pros and cons of using a single d20 for task resolution in D&D. In this post, we will compare the use of a single d20 against 3d6 or other methods in a few problematic situations.

The main problem with using the d20 in D&D comes when you try to roll to compare characters' traits. Mind you, this isn't a problem for all editions, nor is it unsolvable, but it is persistent enough to be worth discussing.

First of all, there is usually little need to use the dice in order to compare characters' traits. Whoever has the biggest STR is the strongest, and so on. You may also force the characters to take 10 and be done with it.

If you decide to use the d20, though, the result might be less than satisfying.

Let's take the d20 SRD as an example:

Opposed Checks
An opposed check is a check whose success or failure is determined by comparing the check result to another character’s check result. In an opposed check, the higher result succeeds, while the lower result fails. In case of a tie, the higher skill modifier wins. If these scores are the same, roll again to break the tie.

Ability Checks

Sometimes a character tries to do something to which no specific skill really applies. In these cases, you make an ability check. An ability check is a roll of 1d20 plus the appropriate ability modifier. Essentially, you’re making an untrained skill check.
In some cases, an action is a straight test of one’s ability with no luck involved. Just as you wouldn’t make a height check to see who is taller, you don’t make a Strength check to see who is stronger.

So, as we said before, you wouldn't make a Strength check to see who is stronger. That makes perfect sense. For example, someone with STR 15 can carry twice as much weight as someone with STR 10, so she's obviously stronger (arguably, about twice as strong).

But what if these two characters face the same challenge? What if some luck or risk is involved? Say, both of them must climb a wall that requires a roll of 10 or more to succeed. If they have identical skills, they get to add their STR modifier to the task, so STR 10 adds +0 and STR 15 adds +2. If you compare their odds, you'll see that. about 20% of the time, the weaker character will succeed while the stronger character fails, while the opposite will happen about 30% of the time, and they will have the same result (as far as success/failure is concerned, although margins will vary) about 50% of the time.

And there are a few situations where rolling to see who is stronger might make sense. If a mighty warrior (say, STR 20) is arm-wrestling the king of Demonland (STR 25) in order to negotiate a peace treaty, just saying "the stronger character automatically wins" is very anti-climatic. But if you roll an opposed check, the king of Demonland will win only 61.25% of the time (supposing that draws go to the character with the higher ability).

Strength is the easiest example, but a score of 15 has been considered noteworthy in most editions of D&D - not only for STR, but for any ability. The chance to roll 15 in or more in 3d6 is less than 10%, so it must be a bit unusual. Even in the editions where STR is more linear (STR 15 will represent 1,5x as strong as STR 10, for example), is hard to argue that an ability of 15 shouldn't be much relevant.

Now, if you invested heavily in an ability (or got a lucky roll), would you expect to lose to an ordinary person 40% of the time? How often would you expect to be beaten by someone who is half as strong, half as smart or half as quick as you? Not that often, I would say.

There are multiple ways to solve this.

Rolling a d20 under ability makes things somewhat better, but not much, and it has the disadvantage of having a hard limit (no arm-wrestling against the STR 25 king without needing additional rules, for example).

Using 1d6 for skills and adding modifiers is even better for the mightier character. Rolling 2d6 will also work. As it often happens, there are classic solutions that work better than many of the things that came later. All this methods were used in older editions of D&D.

But all this solutions will add extra mechanics to the mix, where you could be using something more similar to the traditional combat system, like 3d6+modifers. It is close enough to 1d20+modifiers that you can use similar target numbers, and you might even use both interchangeably (rolling 3d6 when the characters' actions are slower and more predictable, and 1d20 when she's taking risks). It is also closer to the way abilities are generated. It is still very "swingy", but a lot better than 1d20.

At this point you might ask why don't just use 3d6 in combat as well. The answer is quite simple: you could, if combat was made of a single roll.

If you roll 1d20 and BAB (or THAC0, or whatever) for both sides, the fighter with +5 BAB will get beaten by the wizard with +2 BAB quite often. But since a fight is made of multiple, repeated rolls (even if we ignore different tactics, weapons, armor, hit points and so on), the chances will soon get stacked against the worse warrior.

When you compare the odds, using a d20 in situations where you must roll multiple times (say, during four exchanges) isn't much different than rolling 3d6 only once, which makes things a bit more consistent.

More important than the particular methods I use, though, are the results I'm trying to get:

- An outstanding ability score matters.
- If a character has an awesome trait, she will seldom be defeated by ordinary folk using the same trait.
- And if a character is fighting extraordinary opponents, much better than himself, he cannot count on luck to save the day; better come up with a clever plan instead.

Which happens to be the way I like to play.

Next: dice pools.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dungeons & Dice, part II - The dark side of the d20

Last post we talked about the strong suits of the d20. Now it's time to talk about its downsides. Since I like the d20 (mostly because of personal preference), I'll try to explain my view on why these problems are usually not as bad as they look, although some of them might be unavoidable, depending on your tastes. This time around, I'll use keywords to better organize the text.

Availability and price - On this subject, the d6 is the undisputed king. You can find handfuls of d6s anywhere, usually cheap (or free, if you reuse dice from other games), and you can choose any color and size you like, in the farthest countries and in the nearest places (such as supermarkets), while d20s can be rare or expensive where you live, and hard to find in a hurry.

Nowadays, this isn't a big deal for most people, since you can order a d20 online for a couple of dollars or less, at least in most of America and Europe. Besides, RPGs are such a niche hobby that it is difficult to imagine that you play D&D and don't have a few d20s already. But there is no denying that d6s are easier to come by, specially if you are unprepared.

Abstraction - This isn't a problem with the d20, but of using a single die. When you have multiple dice, you can assign different meanings for each one (here you can find some cool ideas). There is also a characteristic of tangibility to dice pools that I love - you can physically “pick” successes from the table, move dice around (a GM might give special dice for certain circumstances or use dice of different colors), split dice pools, hoard and spend dice without the need to write anything down, and so on.

Although I really like this trait of dice pools and I have a house rule to use it in my D&D games, I can't find an elegant solution for people who prefer to use a single dice other than assign special meaning to each number on the d20, which, IMO, is less satisfying.

Granularity - In my latest post, I've said I like the granularity of the d20, in 5% increases. But you might prefer a d100, for more granularity - nowadays, I have a hard time imagining that someone would enjoy distinguishing a 92% to a 93% chance of falling, but I did in the past, and I still like plenty of d100 systems. You may also think a chance smaller than 5% would be useful for specific situations - say, 1% chance of any given stab-wound causing immediate death. You cannot do such thing with a d20 with rolling multiple times, using "exploding dice" or "confirming criticals".

On the other hand, you may think a 5% difference isn't relevant enough, and prefer to use a single d6 or a d10, to stay within the proverbial Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. If you don't like this level of granularity, you'll probably also dislike the tendency for near-irrelevant +1 bonuses that many D&D games use for traits, magic weapons, feats, etc.

I don't think too much granularity is a problem, unless you take it as a justification to count every +1 bonus you can find. In my own games, I use the d20 but usually avoid +1 bonuses (I use +2/+4/+10 most of the time). In any case, this is mostly a matter of personal preference.

Sometimes, the dice aren't on your side.

“Swingyness” and the bell curve - Some people say that you have the same chance of rolling 12 and 15 on a d20, while it would make more sense if a 15 was harder to come by, and the results were spread in a bell curve.

Contrary to many, I do NOT think that this is a problem of the d20.

The problem with this idea is that it assumes there is a DIFFERENCE between rolling 12 and rolling 15, which is not always the case. Let us say, for example, that you have to roll 11 or more to succeed in a task. Whether you're rolling 1d20 or 3d6, the odds are always 50%. Likewise, if you want a character to have a 10% chance of success, just say she needs a to roll 19 or 20 with a d20, or 15 or more in 3d6.

3d6 does NOT generate a bell curve if there are only three or four possible outcomes (pass, fail and crit). Think of it this way: if you were creating a graph for such results, you wouldn't have 16 points (the numbers from 3 to 18) to create a bell curve, but only three or four (success, failure, crit, fumble), exactly as you would with a d20.

Maybe if you're working with margins of success, and want they to vary little, this may become a bit of a problem - but D&D usually doesn't.

Still, there are some situations in which the lack of a bell curve can cause real problems, including what happens when you compare different characters. The subject deserves an extended analysis, which is why we'll cover it in the next post.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Dungeons & Dice, part I - In praise of the d20

In order to analyze D&D's mechanics, thinking about the d20 might be a good start. After all, the use of the d20 has been a fixture since OD&D, and influences the system as a whole. It also marked one of the most important breaks from Chainmail, by adopting a new optional combat system that would soon become the norm. Yes, I do realize you could play OD&D using only d6s (and Chainmail), but the d20 has a few advantages, and this post is about them. If the arguments below sound obvious to you, I urge you to understand that they are building a foundation for this series of posts.

The first advantage is popularity. Although there are infinite number of ways you can use to resolve the results of an action, none is more prototypical to D&D than rolling a d20 (and maybe to RPGs in general), and rolling high. The d20 is ingrained in pop culture as the D&D (and RPG) die - if you're familiar with d20s, you're probably familiar with RPGs, and vice-versa. And, if you aren't, “rolling 20” is in memes, t-shirts, magazines, and even the urban dictionary. D&D popularized the d20 as no other game had done before or after, and every edition has used it as the main dice, making compatibility a bit easier to work out with the d20.

The prototypical gaming die.

The d20 also wields the greatest number of possible results without using multiple dice. Sure, there are d30s and others, but they are a bit rarer, more expensive and harder to use for percentages (each number in the d20 has a 5% chance of coming up, against 3,333% on the d30).

Using a single dice make things a bit easier to calculate: it is easy to realize that you have a 30% chance of rolling 15 or more on d20, but most people (me included) cannot say the exact chance of rolling 15 or more in 3d6 without looking it up. This also means that you always know what difference a +2 bonus or similar will make.

This five-percent increase from one number to the other is a level of granularity I can get behind. In most of the things I buy, for example, I could notice a 5% discount, but would hardly care for anything less. A “natural 20” comes up 5% of the time, which feels quite good to me as a chance of scoring a critical hit in a fight (more than that is too often, less too little - depending on what a critical hit means to your game, of course). For the level of detail I appreciate in my games, the d20 seems like a good fit.

Another advantage of using a single die is speed. Adding dice, or even looking for 5s and 6s in a dice pool takes a few moments (for me at least), and when you are rolling dice for large numbers of characters at the same time, using a single die for each one seems like an almost unbeatable method.

It may seem like I'm trying to sound “objective”, but I am aware some of this is just rationalization of my personal preferences. Anyone could come up with lots of reasons to use a d6, 2d10, dice pools, percentile dice or whatever, and there are surely some downsides to using the d20. We will get to them in the next post.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Watching the D&D Cartoon - part I

In a recent fit of nostalgia, I started watching the D&D cartoon all over again. I really liked it as a kid and, although it seems a bit dated now, I had some fun seeing it again and remembering some curiosities that I hadn't realized at the time.

I am aware there are quite a few people that were already playing D&D for a long time when the cartoon came out, and some of them were appalled by it, but that was not my case. I watched the cartoon before I started playing RPGs (for completely unrelated reasons as far as I can remember), but I was interested I all things related to fantasy and sci-fi.

To be honest, I think I have been quite a sucker for animation for quite a long time. It feels like a natural media for fantasy. When I was a kid, I was very fond of both The Hobbit animated film (even after reading the book) and The Black Cauldron (never read the book, it is probably way better than the movie), and loved lots of movies from Ralph Bakshi, specially Wizards and Fire and Ice. It took me a while longer to get to know Record of Lodoss War and masterpieces such as Akira and Princess Mononoke, but I loved them all.

If you haven't watched the D&D cartoon, the series are about a group of kids (ages 8-15, supposedly) that get magically transported to the world of D&D. It is very much a children's show, and from the 80s... If you think you can dig this type of stuff and you play RPGs, I suggest you take a look to see what you think.

Here's a few things I noticed in the first couple of episodes (and by looking around on the internet).

About the series

- The show was developed by Mark Evanier, the writer of Groo the Wanderer, of which I'm a huge fan.

- It came out in 1983. At this point, besides OD&D, Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc, we had both AD&D and Moldvay's B/X lines, so there was a lot of material to draw from already.

- There aren't many original classes among the main characters… We got the barbarian, the acrobat, the cavalier, the ranger, the magician, and the thief. No fighter or cleric, and the magic user is called magician. No monks, paladins, or assassins either (the last one for obvious reasons - the series is for kids after all). Shannon Appelcline, in his book Designers & Dragons:The ’70s, has a very interesting bit on the the topic:

"The inclusion of the acrobat, the barbarian, and the cavalier is odd too,
because they were all brand-new classes, written up by Gary Gygax for Dragon in
1982 and early 1983. It makes one wonder if Gygax wrote up the classes because Marvel wanted some more variety or if he pushed his newest creations on them".

In any case, it is nice to see that classic D&D classes such as the cavalier and the thief being used instead of more popular archetypes such as “knight” or “swashbuckler”.

- Interestingly, no magical swords either. Magical swords were some of the most potent items in OD&D (and mythology, and fiction), but the heroes don't get one here.

Episode 1 - The Night of No Tomorrow

- The characters begin the episode in a mountainous wasteland. Pieces of rock float through the sky. Later on, they travel among strange, spiky trees. I like how the scenery always remind you that they are in alien territory. Even though they see signs written in English…

- Merlin is in the first episode. Or is he? Anyway, Arthurian folklore seems a bit out of place here, like the aforementioned signs.

- On the other hand, they end up into a “dungeon”… kind of. They got lost in a castle in the sky, I guess that counts. And there are plenty of dragons around. Including Tiamat. Which is cool.

- There is a village of little people on the episode. I thought they were dwarves, but it turns out they are gnomes.

Episode 2 - Eye of the Beholder

- Once again, the characters start the episode in fantastical scenery, this time a desert with four suns. They soon face a giant scorpion and a blue dragon, that end up turning on each other. It reminds me a bit of The Abominations of Yondo, from Clark Ashton Smith.

- Another village ruled by a mayor. This one looks human. Apparently, they hire knights to protect them. An interesting twist on knighthood...

- We (obviously) get too see a beholder in this episode, with energy rays and all! Nice to see original monsters from classic D&D on the smallscreen. Also, some cool snail people.

- The knight in this episode also doesn't have a sword. Maybe they wanted to avoid sharp objects in a children's cartoon?

Even after all this time, I enjoy it, although nostalgia certainly plays a part. Somehow, the first couple of episodes seem quite effective in weaving D&D's multitude of influences in a coherent narrative. And, of course, they are far better than the D&D movies.

So let's see what comes next!