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

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

D&D sells you fish, but won't teach you to fish [Part I]

"Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime"... Or so the saying goes.

So, here is the thing. D&D (and pathfinder, etc.) is selling you fish. Classes, races, spells, etc.

Take the 5e PHB, for example. Tons of great stuff. You buy the game, make some choices, and you get a character, and you're ready to play. Not much effort needed. I really like this book.

Same for the Monster Manual. You get a big list of monsters. Find the monster you need, and you're ready to go.

Modules are basically the same thing. You buy more races, monsters, adventures, spells, etc. There is not much material on creating your classes, races, monsters, etc. These should be on the DMG.

And this is great - I love monster manuals, I love cool adventures, and I really like the 5e PHB. The DMG... is a bit disappointing, but we'll get there.

First, the problem with the PHB. While races, classes and feats are cool, there is an obvious point buy mechanic behind them. I ranted about it here. It goes more or less like this:

A feat will give you SIX POINTS.
An ability score increase costs 3.
A skill costs 2.
Expertise costs 4.
Languages, tools or fighting styles cost 1 [NOT the same as a skill!].
A couple of cantrips cost 1.
Saving throw proficiency costs 3 .

I mentioned feats, but there is also a "hidden" point buy for races and class features. And that is the entire problem: they never tell you the numbers, making your job of creating races, classes and feats harder.

Of course you can "reverse engineer" this stuff, but it discourages you from creating your own stuff.

Worse, it sometimes seems to mislead the reader on these issues. For example, while skills are obviously better than tools - which is reflected on races, backgrounds, etc., - the "skilled" feat treats them as if they had equal value. Same with saving throws - some are obviously better than others, but the book never mentions it explicitly.

The DMG should fix it - but it doesn't.

While the first chapters of the book are pretty good (with some caveats) to great (see below), the parts about the rules do not explain how this "point buy" rules actually work, even though it hints at it. For example, it says "fire" resistance is more or less equivalent to "necrotic" and "radiant" resistance combined, without measuring it... and failing to mention it while discussing new spells!

The new spells part, BTW, is not that bad... just short and full of useless advice such as:

"If a spell is so good that a caster would want to use it all the time, it might be too powerful for its level."

Or guidelines that are so vague that they have no utility at all:

"A long duration or large area can make up for a lesser effect, depending on the spell."

How long? How large? How lesser? Which spells?

This vagueness is not necessary - you can extrapolate good guidelines from the sorcerer, for example. But, again, they seem to discourage you from creating your own stuff.

The DMG is also bad when messing with other rules. The rules on "damage severity by level" (page 249) treats 1st level PCs as if they had the same HP as 4th level PCs without discussing the issues, for example.  The automatic success rules (page 239) can create baffling effects - for example, a PC with Strength 19 might have 50% chance of battering down a door, while Strength 20 will give you an automatic success (shouldn't be there some middle ground there?). And so on.

Now look at this insightful advice on how to find if a task is easy, moderate or hard:

Then ask yourself, "Is this task's difficulty easy, moderate, or hard?"

It sounds like some kind of joke, but this is what the DMG actually say (without addressing that in most adventures there are a lot of DC 12 and DC 13 tasks).

The part about creating monsters is, well... good enough, I guess. Probably deserves a post of its own. Here is something to get you started.

The interesting thing is that the DMG is great when discussing other issues.

The NPC tables are awesome, and the magic items generation is just FANTASTIC. Even the tables on creating adventures is great. Same for settings (although occasionally a bit boring).

These do not only teach how to fish, but provide with hook and line to create your own stuff!

In fact, there is so much awesome stuff in the DMG that I almost feel bad for criticizing it.

But anyway - I feel there is this strange tendency towards avoiding teaching people how to fish, for fer of not being able to sell fish anymore. Which is silly, IMO. In reality, there will ALWAYS be more people willing to buy fish than to do the fishing themselves.


  1. Good points. GURPS purports to have such a system but once you get away from the standard cases it contains a lot of handwavium and weasel words. The original Champions did it a lot better I haven't looked at the newer editions to see if they kept it up. To my mind you always need a meta-system underpinning your player facing system and hopefully that should be accessible to anyone wanting to do improvements. The restriction problem / fear is not the sports / subsistence fishermen who might benefit from knowing how to fish but rival corporate groups that might want to muscle into your space. I guess the question is can the system be protected and can the decisions be justified. In the worst case it encourages the min-maxers and the rort finders.

    1. Thanks! Well, GURPS is better than D&D in this regard, although it does have some obvious flaws (especially at "high levels"), and its supposed "complexity" makes it a lot less popular than D&D [although I'd argue that GURPS is not that complex, it just has too many skills and maybe too many options].
      I am not familiar with Hero System, but I hear it is great for "supers".
      But yeah, min-maxers would benefit form this... However, if this were on the DMG, I think it would be fair to say players cannot thinker with the system (like they can't choose the magic weapons they'll find).

    2. Yep, Champions was a supers game from the start. Whereas GURPS was swords and spells. So the Champions systems was extremely consistent while GURPS was built piecemeal by different people with different design decisions until it got to the point where Magic, PSI, Chi and Super Powers had to be declared as orthogonal to each other because there was no way to reconcile the different design approaches. At that point the system broke IMO. I'm saying Champions not Hero system because I don't know how the mechanic was extended when they generalised it. But it is really rare to see meta-rules exposed or discussed in a game system.

  2. Good analogy, regarding the fish. Isn't 5e called the compromise edition? It tries to make everyone moderately happy. Guess that was enough for most gamers...

    1. I suppose a lot of folks are settling for moderate happiness these days in a number of areas.

    2. Thanks! You are probably right, Venger. It IS the compromise edition... I like it, but it feels like it can never be perfect for me. The conclusion, I think, is that you can never have the perfect game unless you write one yourself. Otherwise, you are limited to "good enough' - or "moderate happiness" like JB says...

      "I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's."


    3. Heh, that JB quote almost sounds like the old saw about "Those who don't know LISP/FORTH are doomed to re-invent it'.

    4. There are so many RPGs out there already. I don't think you *have* to create your own to achieve personal perfection, but it wouldn't hurt to DIY. At least try some house-rules!

  3. 2e AD&D Had the Skill & Powers (etc.) Options Series, with the points included. At the time, it was 2.5, when 3e was released, I had hoped it would have been better polished, but instead, they decided to once again hide the numbers.

    I sold my copy of the 5e DMG as soon as I could find a buyer.

    1. Yeah, this is sad for 5e and D&D. But it seems to work for WotC.

  4. It would of been nice in the DMG 5e if more the how to create classes, races, and the like were included. As is there is a section of option rules, that seem to be largely overlooked by the online active community, and the homebrew groups seem to be figuring it out on the fly. In general 5e feels like it is made to be modular enough that you can plug in the components that you purchase but if you try to design your own it doesn't feel quite right.

    1. Yeah, at least we got that. 5e homebrew is plentiful.

    2. Consumers are more plentiful than hobbyists. Sad but true.

  5. So this post has taken a few forms over the last couple of days, only to be wiped out by site shenanigans. Let's try again.

    I don't have a whole lot of familiarity with TTRPGs outside of D&D, so I don't have the familiarity of point buy systems. But my understanding is that the difference between point system and levelling system is that the former gives you points as a resource to spend on assets, while a levelling system assigns you predetermined packages.

    Would you see a good path for D&D to be a default is to build with a point system in mind such that you can sell the DMG as "This is the system to do what we did. You can play by pure point system, or by levelling".

    This can go further with breaking down D&D spells into the idea of base cantrips and spell points/augmentation as a means of having a means of building any spell you want through using the spell point system on the fly, or going back to Vancian casting with the system being the "spell research" structure. If you have a robust system, even if you do publish new spells like they do currently, these can be built "in line" with previous publications.

    If such a system was implemented this way, I would probably go so far as to bring the skill point system into the old idea of "Training Days". This allows for the means of going anywhere from Gold = XP to cover training and living expenses, to converting to milestone XP for straight level ups, and any point in between.

    I know this runs the risk of 3.X bloat, but I think there is a balance with a robust core ruleset, a book that shows you all the tools, and then publishing adventures and campaigns.

    Basically TSR era D&D without all of the issues _that_ had as a company.

    1. Yeah, I wouldn't want point-buy to be the default, but I'd like the point cost of stuff to be explicit in the DMG (not in the PHB).

      Spells are another matter... I think they could be a LOT simpler AND more flexible, but 5e already implemented some good ideas (casting at higher levels, for example).

    2. For spells, I think one could break spells down to Type/Intent (Elements/Warding/Healing) then Range, Shape, Duration, and Dice. You then spend spell points to build a spell. Each Element/Intent has a base 0 point cantrip, and different effects attached to it (ex. Fire: add 1 die to the die scaling (think of how 5e Fireball is out of line with normal spell scaling). This can be used to make fire based attacks or absorb fire damage (with a Ward based cantrip being more general defense). This does account for changing effects of upcasting.

      From a game design perspective, it keeps your spells all functioning within the same framework. However it also allows you to hand those tools over to the individual tables.

      Just giving the means to mix and match spells means that while you are not publishing massive number of spells in books, you can share ideas in campaign sets, really driving the sense of exploring for new spells. You earn through system mastery.

      Now to get this to function with everything from Fire Bolt to Meteor Swarm will be a trick indeed.