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, March 31, 2019


This is a brainstorming post. I am discussing ideas that I've just had and, honestly, are pretty contrary to things I wrote in the past (and use in my games). However, they seem like an interesting change of focus and I'd like to  think about them in public and hear other people's opinions.

Is D&D - and, by extension, RPGs in general - a type of game that is focused on telling a story?

Well, no, at least not for me. The whole "telling a story" idea detracts from the experience I want from RPGs (which is, basically, LIVING a story).

However, this week after my Curse of Strahd weekly game one idea crossed my head... what if we think of some RPG campaigns as a game of competitive storytelling? Or maybe a game of competing stories?

The whole idea sounds strange - not only because RPGs are not "storytelling games" IMO, but also because I do not usually think of them as "competitive".

But this makes sense to me for some reason:

- Every player has a story planned for their characters. Maybe they are "meant" to become kings, make their deities proud, or slay an old nemesis.
- The GM - or the NPCs - have their own story planned out - Strahd destroys his enemies or captures his unwilling bride, etc.
- Players and GM compete to see which story becomes "real".
- However, the competition between these stories necessarily change them - mostly because no one has a complete picture in the beginning.

[This makes sense MOSTLY on long campaigns with a single "story-line", like Curse of Sthrad; the GM can hardly think in terms of "story" if each game is a different one-page dungeon with no connecting themes]

With these foundations, the players and GM compete to set the details of the story. Notice that this is not necessarily more or less important than the ending of the story; sometimes the journey is literally more important than the destination.

How do they compete? With arguments. And mechanics, of course. For example:

- "This goblin cannot survive, because he is sleeping and I cut his throath".
- "I hit this NPC with my sword, because I rolled a 17 and her AC is only 14".
- "My character did not die, because I still have 3 HP left".

There is one common thread in all these arguments: they all rely on the idea that "the story must make sense". The mechanics are just a way to enforce this fact - i.e., it makes sense that someone in heavy armor would be more protected than someone without armor (unless it doesn't - for example, if the guy without armor is more nimble, he might avoid incoming attacks, etc.).

There seems to be an enormous hole in this idea: the GM could say "rock falls, everyone dies". However, this is the same as a player saying "well, my character isn't really into slaying dragons, I'll just become an honest baker instead". More realistically, the GM might say "Sthrad sends an army of undead against you while you sleep, even before you defy him. When you wake up there are 100 zombies around you".

The problem is these stories are obviously boring. How popular would "The Lord of the Rings" be if Sauron appeared in Elrond's council and simply killed everybody, with no hope escaping? If the PCs have no chance, or no challenge, there is no fun. So, in addition to making sense, the story must be fun; if you do not think the stories created by GM and players are fun, you'll probably look for other groups.

Also, if the GM's story simply overrules the player's stories, there is no "competition". For this reason, the GM should always be fair. In a competitive environment, "fixing" the dice is cheating.

This indicates another obvious problem: the GM has to be a player/competitor and referee at the same time, which would be impossible in most games. 

Games without a referee have explicit rules that all players must follow; likewise, players in a RPG should agree on a set of rules, even if these include "the GM may change the rules when deferring to common sense", etc.

Still, most RPGs give so many tools to the GM that he must put his role of referee above his role of competing story-teller.

Notice also that the GM does not need to come up with a story of his own; Curse of Strahd, for example, contains (the outline of) a story, for example. But the GM must move his pieces in order to move the campaign story forward, in the way it is intended in the book.

On a micro level, the "story" can be defined scene by scene, without an overarching plot. The PCs enter a room; in the room, there is a troll. The module says the troll wants to eat the PCs, but also wants to acquire jewelry. The PCs have their own "story" planned: they do not want to be eaten, but they also want to acquire treasure. Maybe one of the PCs is a troll-slayer or a pacifistic; the player must "defend" his PC's story against the troll and the other PCs.

Even the most disinterested player has an idea about the story that will unfold. At the bare minimum, she wants her character to stay alive, and the story to be cool (a disinterested player might decide what "cool" is scene by scene).

In the end, through playing the game, everyone reaches a consensus on what the story will become. The story needn't be the coolest story each player could come up with, but it must be cool enough that the players are inclined to play again and contribute to new stories in this manner.

"Consensus" does not seem to mesh with "competition". However, think of friendly sparring or any kind of competitive and you'll realize there must be consensus in order to compete. Competition is not, after all, synonymous with war. We must agree on the rules before playing, and must have fun in order to play again.

The main argument against this view seems to be, IMO, that players and GMs do not have a pre-planned story, but instead PCs and NPCs have goals

However, this doesn't seem as compelling because:

- When role-playing, PCs can take actions that go against the characters "goals". A bloodthirsty PC may start a fight with a potential ally even if her goals are hindered. The reason is that the story must make sense. 
- While GMing, I cannot think of all NPCs in the world. I must choose whatever NPC is nearest, etc. I'm more concerned with making the story make sense than with each individuals NPC's goals. I cannot make Sthrad appear all of a sudden unless circumstances (or the dice) tell me to do so.

That is all I've got for now. I'm very interested on hearing your opinion; if you have something to add, disagree, etc,. please leave a comment below .

Monday, March 25, 2019

Encounter Distance, light, vision, etc. (random thoughts)

This is what my Dark Fantasy Basic (DFB) says about encounter distance; it is pulled from Moldvay's Basic, as much of DFB:

A creature’s initial distance to the PC’s is determined by the
GM according to circumstances. As a rule of thumb, use
2d6 times 10 feet for indoor encounters and 2d6 times 30
feet for outdoors.

"Surprise" in DFB is basically a perception check. In D&D 5e, there is no "Both partis surprised", I think. You only surprise the other side on purpose:

The GM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the GM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

This is the way I usually play.

However, one thing I hadn't considered much is vision. If many monsters have "darkvision 60 ft.", for example, it is obvious that no one would actually see another creature at longer distances; maybe they'll hear a noise, etc., but they will hardly be able to discerne exactly WHERE it is coming from (unless they are in a narrow corridor, etc).

In fact, the idea that there is something in the dark just beyond the limits of your vision is so awesome that I am amazed that I don't remember ever using it!

What do you do? Do you press forward to find out? Does IT approaches, or hides away? How cool would it be if your heard a noise and then... there is nothing there!

So, initial encounter distance is basically always 60 feet, but you can hear some signs before that...

This alleviates MANY issues I have with 5e, including the lack of  a clear rule for encounter distances and the excessive power of ranged weapons.

Notice that AD&D had a different rule, as mentioned by Delta:

"But on the other hand, OD&D says that monsters are seen at 20-80' (Vol-3, p. 9), and AD&D likewise says "A light source limits the encounter distance to twice the normal vision radius of the source" (DMG, p. 62) (as well as real-life experiments supporting the same thing, here; login required) -- so it seems like effective visibility is back to at least 60', equal to PC infravision."

So, in theory you COULD see a monster from beyond you infravision/darkvision... Maybe only a silhouette or shade? Or small eyes blinking in the darkness? Interesting ideas to consider!


There are also other issues to keep in mind.

First, a torch (or "light" cantrip) has only 40 feet of reach. This gives darkvision a clear edge. But the edge is not only the difference between 40 and 60 feet.

In fact, it is obvious that a torch in the darkness can be seen from a mile away, although the rules do not acknowledge this fact. (BTW, here is a video showing how USELESS a torch is in real life when indoors...)

Common sense would dictate that someone with a torch could NEVER surprise anyone else in the dark. Here is what I wrote in DFB:

Carrying a light in the darkness will ruin most PCs’ chances
of stealth, but other characters in the party might be able
to move around undetected.

The idea is that the paladin carries the torch while the thief sneaks around in the shadows, for example.

But all this talking assumes that monsters with darkvision are NOT carrying torches. Well, this is obviously what I would expect form OD&D (in its nightmarish underworld) or reality (such monsters would have no need for torches nor would put themselves in equal footing to diurnal foes), but I'm less certain in 5e, since even monsters with darkvision will get disadvantage on their perception checks in total darkness.

So torches would be USEFUL to them - specially on patrol duties!

And for someone carrying a torch, spotting a faint light in the distance might be more difficult than for someone in the dark.

Do notice, however, that light would be obvious for someone with darkvision in 5e; it would appear as shades of color in an otherwise black-and-white environment... which is also very cool.

Other senses - blindsight and truesight, for example - will generate different results. Likewise, a fog or thick foliage will alter expectations.

Finally, there is always the "turning a corner" issue. In a tight dungeon, with BOTH sides carrying torches, is is conceivable that they could fail to detect one another until they turned a corner.

And, if you're not careful, you can always be surprised when you open a door...

So, IN CONCLUSION... encounter distance should rely on light, darkness, the character's senses, circumstances and geography, instead of being determined randomly.

Here is how I describe "encounter distance" in my next book:

The GM will determine a monster’s initial distance to the PCs according to circumstances. For example, a monster might be found behind a door, or turning a corner in a dungeon. As a rule of thumb, use 2d6 times 10 feet for indoor encounters and 2d6 times 30 feet for outdoors. However, if the parties are meeting in a dark place, whoever has the better vision will gain the upper hand. For example, a monster with 60 feet of darkvision (or infravision) is unlikely to be surprised by a party that can only see 30 feet in the dark. 
Needless to say, carrying a source of light (torch, etc.) in the darkness will make stealth near impossible for the bearer. 
A smart monster with darkvision may inquire adventurers before entering their sight, and might attack first if they try to approach without giving answers.

Further reading:


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

D&D without abilities

While reconsidering some of Dark Fantasy Basic's mechanics, I started thinking about D&D without abilities, i.e., Strength, Dexterity, etc.

There are enough recent games that use ONLY abilities to resolve tasks: Knave* and TBH* come to mind. For example, rolling under Strength to break down a door or under Dexterity to pick a lock. 

Moldvay Basic* DID have an optional rule ("there is always a chance") to indicate similar possibilities - using abilities regardless of level - but it also contained many thieve's skills that functioned using your level regardless of abilities.

I always felt a combination of both to be the most "realistic", sensible or even obvious solution. This (very popular) "stat + skill" combination would, in my view, be easy even for beginners, that would otherwise wonder "wait, how come my Strength 20 barbarian has no advantage when breaking down doors?".

However, lately I have been feeling that this is a bit redundant in terms of design. For example, a "Fighter 15" with a +15 attack bonus is easier an simpler than adding Strength to it. 

This also makes monster easier to create and understand (i.e., a 15HD monster has the same bonus as a 15th level fighter - and the same HD, of course). Otherwise, you start wondering why only heroes get such bonuses.

Skills are relatively easy to "fix" - just disregard abilities, or choose between using ability OR skill. One advantage is that the smart rogue no longer beats the cleric at religion, for example.

Saving throws can be "unified" into a single category too - take Swords&Wizardy, for example - or give Fighters an edge at "fortitude" saves, etc.

But there are other effects of abilities that are more interesting, such as extra damage, extra HP, more spells or languages... 

All these little +1s and +2s help to make each character unique, so no two 3rd level fighters are identical. One might be stronger, other more nimble - and they will PLAY different in combat, one avoiding more hits, the other delivering crushing blows, but not often.

As always, this is a case of preference. When rolling skills, for example, 3e and 4e rely heavily on level, while 5e is more balanced. Although 5e is my favorite of the three, I prefer level to have a larger influence, which is what I used in Dark Fantasy Basic.

But this "customizing" aspect of abilities is something I have no desire to get rid of.

Who knows, maybe I add "skills without abilities" as an optional rule...

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