Thursday, August 20, 2015

Success Guaranteed!

Are you familiar with the Garden of Eden trap?

It’s a way to short-circuit adventures before they really begin. Basically, it works like this: the PCs need to do a thing or the adventure stops. This can take all sorts of forms:
  • The PCs must surrender to the “obviously” overpowering forces of the enemy.
  • The PCs must solve the puzzle to get through to the next room.
  • The PCs must put these clues together in just the right way to figure out where to go next.
  • The PCs must put Tab A into Slot B (usually meaning bring a portable magic item to a fixed magic item, but it can be even worse when both items are portable).

But the absolute worst is: the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue with the adventure.

You see that last one ALL THE TIME and it annoys me every time I see it. To find the hidden enemy, the PCs must find a secret door. To secure the McGuffin you must solve the puzzle. Heck, to even start the adventure you must pass a lore or intimidation or whatever check just to even learn about the dungeon’s existence!

If the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue, what are you going to do when they fail?

And having three options isn’t enough. What if they entirely miss that one exists and flub the remaining two somehow? What will you do?

This is called the Garden of Eden trap because if Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit, nothing changes; they stay in paradise and there’s no rest of the Bible.

Note that this isn’t the same as combat. Even if you get a TPK in combat, the adventure can continue; it just might be with different characters. But nobody wants to build entirely new characters just because the dice are ornery and nobody can pass a Lore check or something equally inane.

Secret doors and secret passages are cool, but they should be built with the idea that they are bonus material. If the PCs find the secret door, they should get extra loot. Or they offer a way around a nasty monster they’d have to fight otherwise. Or maybe they provide a safe space to rest and recuperate.

Ditto for puzzles. Either they can be solved by brute-force or simply going through every available option (taking the time to do so, of course), or they again offer access to bonus material: extra treasure, a sub-level of your dungeon, stuff like that.

If there is something the players must know so the adventure can continue (like, say, the actual location of the dungeon), then give it to them for free. If you want them to roll a die, then let them, and then tell them what they need to know regardless of how the roll came out. If they roll really well, you might also give them something extra (like that the dungeon is inhabited by lycanthropes or something equally useful). If they roll really poorly, tell them two things, one of which is true and the other of which is a lie.

But for the love of Pete, don’t force the players to succeed at a roll to continue or finish the adventure. If you do, you’d damned well better have more material for play that evening, because it won’t be the players’ fault if gaming ends early.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Year of 5e

As Venger Satanis has pointed out, we're a now a year on from the release of 5e's PHB. He's curious to hear how people feel about it now.

I've been playing a lot of 5e lately, more, in fact, than I've been playing any other system. I have one face-to-face game that meets at least twice (and sometimes three times per month) with a huge group (seven players fairly consistently, making the largest group I've played with regularly) and a single one-on-one game that meets nearly weekly. The game is fun.

The first thing I'll note about it is how solidly designed it is. The action economy is subtle, low-key, and the solution to issues that have plagued every single version of the game that has come before. The complexity ramps up slowly (though I have players who are still not sure what a proficiency bonus is and what you apply it to). The classes are nicely delineated. The races do what they do and then get out of the way. Backgrounds, on the other hand, remain fun up through at least the mid levels.

I've not played with any characters beyond 7th level so far, so I've not been able to see what breaks down at later levels. Nothing feels broken, but when the PCs start dishing out damage in the triple digits it'll make you pause for a moment to catch your breath. (Yes, a group of 7 PCs focused on a single target can drop three-digits worth of damage around 3rd level without breaking a sweat.) HP inflation is everywhere you look, but it actually leads to AC being less important which means low-level monsters can still be interesting threats to mid-living characters.

Magic is badly nerfed. Yes, that flattens the power curves, but I keep wanting to do things with cool spells like charm person that would have been perfectly feasible in TSR-era D&D that are now a lot tougher. Likewise, monsters are a lot more focused. The maralith is a choppy-choppy melee monster, and she really doesn't have much else in the way of interesting combat abilities. She's really, really good at chopping things up, but...

The biggest issue I have with 5e, however, is that, at its core, it doesn't really know what it wants to be. (Thanks to Natalie Bennett for much of these insights, inspired by my frustration with 5e's succubus.) EXP is principally awarded for killing things, implying that combat remains the focus as it has for WotC's entire range of D&D versions. And yet there are monsters that feel confused as to their purpose, like the succubus who's clearly fallen in the gap between plot-instigator and melee-bruiser. It's not a game about exploration (though bits of it kinda want to be), while, at times, it wants to be a game about plots and stories.

So every now and then 5e will do something to frustrate your expectations. And after you get over the shock you'll be annoyed, largely because most of the time it's such a well-behaved rules set that plays well with everyone at the table, including (and possibly especially) the DM.

It's not an OSR game, but it isn't OSR-unfriendly, and it certainly fixes some of the issues you run into with TSR-era D&D. If you're a fan of the OSR and you're thinking about running 5e, the first thing I'd suggest houseruling is EXP. EXP-for-gold fixes a lot of 5e's more obnoxious issues. Pay very close attention to the rules for bonus actions and concentration; neither work the way you might assume and both make the game a lot more manageable at the table.

I haven't bought anything for 5e yet beyond the core books. I'll probably pick up the Rage of Demons adventure book just to see what they do with it, and how they do things like stat blocks and the like. So far, it's been very friendly towards updating old works and I've not felt any lack of cool things to throw at my players. We'll see if that continues to the be case as their current PCs rise in level, retire, and we start new campaigns.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

5e Licensing: the Plot Thickens?

If you listen to this interview with Mike Mearls at GenCon, you’ll hear the latest on third-party licensing for D&D 5e. The fun starts just after 45 minutes into the interview. Most specifically, Mearls says:

The plans we had grew bigger, and more complicated… what we have might not be exactly what people expect, but I think it’s just going to be seen as objectively better.

So what does that mean?

No idea, honestly. I think, however, we can safely rule out a blanket open license a la 3e’s OGL.

One thing I picked up from an interview with Ryan Dancey (I think on the Fear the Boot podcast) was that the OGL didn’t quite work the way they expected. Dancey and Co. had assumed that DMs would use the OGL to publish their homebrew adventures. (Keep in mind that, at this time, adventures were seen as loss-leaders; necessary support to grow an RPG, but individually unprofitable.) Instead, what they got was a flood of splatbooks.

And a flood of new character options is absolutely not what WotC wants to see for 5e. If you got back to Mearls’ comments from GAMA or the early part of the Tome Show interview, you’ll hear him talk about how important it is to keep the game lean, to not drown players (and especially DMs) with lots of new options, special cases, and new mechanics.

So I’m predicting a license that discourages character options, alternate games (i.e. True20 or Fading Suns d20), and the like, but encourages publishing adventures, settings, backgrounds, monsters and treasure. The push will be to use backgrounds, and not new classes or class paths, to make characters better fit the setting. Maybe races. Races could go either way, but I suspect they’ll be discouraged as well. And spells? Probably allowed, but that’s a grey area that might fall too close to making new classes and class variants.