Thursday, October 18, 2007

Say What???

Ok, I’m about to do something that anyone who wants to build a successful gaming blog should probably never, ever do.

I’m going to admit that I’m not down with the cool kids.

It’s been creeping up on me slowly, especially since the publication of D&D 3.5. It’s gotten to the point where I can read a post on a message board about D&D and have no freakin’ idea what they’re talking about.

For instance, there’s this post over at

When I started the campaign I'm running, the party was a rogue, a spellthief, a paladin, and a favored soul. After a few sessions, I wrote in a ranger and a multiclasser intent upon cerebromancer. Long story short, it seemed like a balanced party: 2 skillfuls, 2 bruisers, 1 healer, and 1 blaster.

Then I kicked out the cerebromancer because he didn't show up to four sessions in a row, the spellthief is now playing a soulbow (long story), and the ranger is bowing out due to other commitments.

Now the party has no crowd control, and I don't know how to fix it. I really don't want to add another player because it is already hard enough to organize games with the five schedules I'm currently juggling.

Wha? I don’t even know what a favored soul is, but I assume it, like the soulbow, is a new character class or prestige class from a non-core book. That’s not such a big deal.

But when did players start building characters around themes like “crowd control” and “blaster”? When did such considerations become so vital that a DM would think the game was broken if the party didn’t have someone who could handle them?

You can see a bit of befuddlement in the responses:

You're the GM. You control what the players come up against, and the party won't need a character to do crowd control unless you choose to make it necessary. So don't.

To which the OP says:

That doesn't really help me much because you're telling me not to use:

summon monster spells
more than 4 enemies in any one encounter

Uh, no. Not really.

Listen, I don’t want to sound snotty, and this ain’t another take on edition wars, but this is a fault-line in a rather serious culture clash built around D&D, the core of our hobby. There have always been different flavors of the game, different ways to play it, but we’ve always started with the same basic assumptions. Whether you were playing a traditional dungeon-delving game, or something with a lot of politics and urban intrigue, the old balance of stealth, healing, muscle and firepower was understood. It was simple, vague, and flexible, and most of them could be replaced by hirelings or magical aids in a pinch.

Now, however, some players are seeing mechanical realities that others are oblivious to. Yeah, you can blame MMOGs, I think. Tank, blaster, healer, buffer, mob control. For a successful high-level raid, you need all these areas covered, and with multiple PCs. Otherwise, you get clobbered at your weakness, and your team falls apart.

Thing is, pen-and-paper games ain’t MMOGs. In addition to the above mentioned power of the DM to adjust the opposition, the players have a lot more options than just what’s listed on their character sheets. I have always, and still do, throw my players up against opposition they simply can’t slug it out with, toe-to-toe. I just make sure I always give them a chance to run or overcome, if they are clever.

Most of my players have always been able to do it. I’ve never, ever, had a TPK (though I have had a few Total Party Captures, but that’s a feature, not a bug). I’ve thrown low-level characters up against liches and dragons, mid-level characters against demon princes, and high-level characters against gods.

The key to making such encounters work is flexibility. Let the players be clever. Let them negotiate, let them use the environment to their advantage, give them a chance to escape and then find their foe’s weakness. Players should feel that running away to return, better prepared, to fight and win another day is a viable strategy. This, after all, was the way the game was designed to be played.

Ok, that’s a pretty bold statement, isn’t it? Where do I get off making it?

Simply look at the adventures given to us by the creators of the game. Mr. Gygax’s “Vault of the Drow” was not intended to be “fair”. There’s no way a party of the appropriate levels could fight their way through the drow city that is the centerpiece of the adventure. But methods were given to allow the players to get into the city, to walk the safer streets and learn what they needed to accomplish their goals. Stealth, guile, and deception were encouraged. And this wasn’t a low-level adventure where Mr. Gygax was forced to throw the heroes against something far beyond their abilities just to have something interesting. This was an adventure for levels 10-14.

But the designers back then didn’t pull any punches on low-level parties, either. Take a gander at this map of the Caves of Chaos, the dungeon for the classic “Keep on the Borderlands”. What you’re looking at is a horseshoe valley peppered with cave entrances. Each warren is home to a different set of challenges. There’s nothing to prevent the ill-prepared party from entering any of them. A party that doesn’t do its research is as likely to face the powerful evil cult of warriors and clerics as they are the tiny band of kobolds.

Research is a vital part of this sort of play. The players are expected to ask about the dungeon before they go charging in. The old modules all included lists of rumors, some true and some false, that the party might pick up. Inside the dungeon, it was expected that the PCs would attempt to capture members of the enemy, and question them for details of what other dangers they might face. If you were lucky, rescued captives or dissident members of the local population might even be able to draw you map of part of the dungeon.

Do players still do things like this? Or do they quickly jump into the maze, go toe-to-toe with everything they face, kill it, and then move on until they need to rest, heal, and restore their capabilities? Just how much is D&D played like a MMOG?

And it’s not just the players that have left me bumfuzzled. The designers are doing it, too:

I'm working on magic items right now. A previous version of the rules had magic items that were just too complex and too numerous, so we're stripping off a couple layers of complexity. You won't be a magic item Christmas tree any more, but you might be a Christmas shrub or a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

What does this mean? Doesn’t the DM still decide what magical goodies the PCs get? Did they somehow make low-magic campaigns against the rules? Making the magic items less complex, sure, if that’s what you want, go for it. But how are they going to make them less common? Isn’t that up to the DM?

Yes, I know the Challenge Rating system assumed a certain level of magical equipment to be on hand. But again, that only applies if the party is going to go toe-to-toe with the monsters. Is that the only sort of encounter people play today? And how do these assumptions affect character creation? Do players feel they need to maximize the utility of their character, always creating the same build because that gives the most benefits, just to measure up to the Challenge Ratings?

Do folks feel trapped, needing to create an “effective” character rather than a fun one, or the one they’d like to make?

If this is the state of D&D among even a tenth of its players today, then 4th edition, assuming it honestly addresses these issues, can’t come soon enough.

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