Devil in the Die Rolls

So, previously I talked about what I want to see in a new D&D, which I’m calling D&D After Next. One of my primary goals for After Next is to speed up play; I want to be able to run a full mid-size adventure in a single 2-3 hour session. D&D will never be a party game, but I want it to be something you can convince your friends to try once and actually show off how an adventure goes, complete with an ending. I don’t want D&D to necessarily be an entire evening’s project. I want gamers to play an adventure in D&D, but then still have time to play an hour or two of Smash or Halo or some other game. The TTRPG demographic tends to be a bit older; we have a lot going on. School, work, friends, family, watching hours upon hours of syndicated television on Netflix, getting on the internet and complaining about games, etc., etc. Anyways, enough of the why, let’s talk about the how.

How do you make D&D a 2-hour affair? The answer is simple; combat. Combat in D&D came from table-top wargames, and was born in era when hobby games didn’t have much competition. So combat in D&D looks and feels like a wargame, complete with complex turns, measurements that need to be accounted for, and a long list of specific effects which must be learned independently. While much of the industry has moved away from this, the poster boy for the entire genre, Dungeons & Dragons, languishes in the past because it is convinced that it just needs to recapture some elusive, mystical quality from its glory days by going back to those mechanics. I disagree; the real secret to D&D’s early success, besides the absolute lack of competition, was Gary Gygax’s salesmanship. I will save more on that for another article about marketing your game, but for now here’s my brilliant theory; what makes D&D familiar is not what makes it fun. D&D needs to be willing to re-examine some of its fundamental assumptions and discard ones that don’t help it get where it wants to be. One of those old assumptions is the complex combat, which focused on tactical decisions to the point that it takes a very long time to kill 5 kobolds.

The major contributors to D&D combat’s sluggish resolution time are as follows;

  • Initiative; rolling it and keeping track of it (or more, forgetting it and having to remember whose turn it is, and ‘oh, we skipped so-and-so, let’s go back,’ and such)
  • Turn structure; between movement and combat maneuvers and spells and free actions, swift and/or immediate actions, standard actions, full-round actions, you are going through 5-6 lists of stuff you can do and choosing one from each list to make the optimal combination. Keeping track of all these actions and phases is not difficult, but it does take time.
  • Die rolls; A bog standard attack takes at least two rolls – to-hit and damage – and a crit takes many more than that. That’s not counting Opportunity Attacks, or multiple attacks on a turn, or grappling.

These have largely remained untouched for decades of D&D’s history, and I don’t think that’s healthy.

After Next’s combat system will not be grid-based, initiative order will not be so quickly forgotten, it will have a simplified turn structure, and it will reduce the number of dice you have to roll. Let’s take these each separately.

Non-grid-based Combat

The grid was a perfectly fine way to make D&D for wargamers who had the stuff to make grids handy. That is a much smaller portion of the D&D-playing populace now, though, so we need a new way of seeing the combat. Many modern RPGs have highly abstract location systems, where there is literally no objective way to tell how far one thing is from another; it’s entirely based on how the player/GM is imagining it. When those two disagree, though, confusion and sometimes conflict ensues. So, we need an objective way of seeing everything; Areas.

Areas just mean that the environment is chopped up into different regions or zones or whatever you want to call them, and that is the finest level of positioning detail we care about. Not all areas will be the same size; an area may be as small as a narrow staircase or as large as a spacious field, and that’s OK. The borders of an area will be based on the features of the map; walls, hallways, possibly furnishings or other stones, anything that breaks up an even surface.

A character in any given Area will be able to melee against any target in that Area, no matter how many people he might walk by in doing so. The idea is that the characters in an Area are not at fixed, stationary positions, but rather are moving around in reaction to the other combatants, so you can attack who you like. Now, you still need the idea of a front-line and a back-line, so let characters in melee form up and essentially hold the aggro of a number of foes. As long as there aren’t more melee enemies on the Area than that formation can hold, the enemies can’t attack the ones the formation are protecting.

For instance, if a Wizard, Paladin, Barbarian, and Ranger are in one party, and they’re fighting a bunch of goblins, then the Paladin and Barbarian could form a line, protecting the Wizard and Ranger, and prevent goblin attackers from being able to attack the latter two. For now I will tentatively set the limit that N number of melee characters in a formation can prevent 2N-1 enemy attackers from targeting the back line. In layman’s terms, the front-line can hold off anything less than twice their own number, but more than that can get past them. So a 1-man line can hold off 1 opponent, a 2-man line can hold off 3, a 3-man line can hold off 5, etc. Of course there would be feats or abilities which increase this. That’s enough for formations now, but I have more ideas for them later.

Initiative & Turn Structure

Rolling up new Initiative every fight is really just a time-waster. It randomizes the slight tactical advantage that going first brings with it, but I don’t think it’s worth the time we waste rolling it, figuring out the order, and then forgetting it and figuring it out again multiple times per fight. So, to keep it simple, we could just make Initiative a static number. Then suggest that the players would sit in order of initiative, so we can just go around the table. That’s an option, in case you really want to speed up play. Your total initiative bonus is now just your initiative, so if Bob goes before Sally and after Paul in one fight, the order is still Paul, Bob, Sally in the next fight.

As for turn structure, we’ll lay the ground rule that a round is not 6 seconds of combat, it’s a single narrative beat, which might be 2-3 seconds or 30 seconds or more. During this round you typically get 1 significant action. Whether that’s an attack, a spell, or breaking down a door or climbing up a rope or moving into a new Area, you can do one thing this turn. Now, there’ll probably be several ways to cheat on this rule, and that’s fine; if you Charge you can move into a new Area and attack, for example. Anything less than that – switching weapons, moving around in your Area, grabbing an item (if uncontested), talking, etc., are simply free actions.

On your turn, you first resolve any on-going effects, like taking poison or environmental damage, rolling to resist a charm or other debuff, etc., then take your action, attacking or moving or whatever it may be. This way there is only one phase of the turn where you have to remember what conditions are affecting you, and the exciting part of your turn, the action, is also the climax.

Rolling the Dice

Choose your Weapon - Dice

All the above is nice, but it still falls short of really bringing a typical combat down to the 15-minute benchmark. When I’m late for something and I need to cut down on transit time, I try to speed, even though I know that the # of lights is a far greater indicator of how long it takes to arrive. If I really want to cut out chunks of my travel time, I need to cut out the number of lights on my route. Similarly, in After Next, to really cut down combat time, we need to cut out die rolls.

The easiest thing is to do away with separate to-hit and damage rolls. I don’t think damage rolls contribute that much in the first place; yes, it’s kind of exciting to roll max damage, but it’s also really frustrating to only get a 1 or a 2 on your d8 or d12. So, I think moving to fixed damage values for weapons, +STR mod, works just fine. Now this isn’t the whole story, as I plan to implement degrees of success; beat the enemy’s AC by enough and you deal more damage, so there is still some variance to how much damage you deal, but it only requires one roll.

Another problem is critical hits. I have a critical hit system that changes some fundamental aspects of the game, taking a hint or two from The One Ring, the latest Lord of the Rings RPG, which I’ll explain in the next article in this series, but suffice it to say that crits won’t take 4-6 rolls (attack roll, crit confirm roll, damage roll, damage roll 2, damage roll 3, etc.) anymore.

Those two things will cut down on resolution time, but there’s two more larger changes that will have far-reaching implications for the combat engine. First, allow what I call ‘Active Defense.’ When you are attacked by an opponent, you have the option to sacrifice your next turn to roll an attack against your assailant, opposing their own attack. These two attacks are rolled simultaneously and whoever wins deals damage and whatever else their hit does as normal, and play proceeds. This will go through 2 turns in 1, It changes the dynamics of the combat somewhat, but I think it’s a solid idea to build on.

The second game-changer is the option to jointly attack a single target. If everyone is going to attack the big troll anyway, just have them roll it all simultaneously. There are a few strings attached, namely that you can only do this on the turn of the last participating character in initiative order. So if Paul, Sally, and Bob all want to attack the dragon, they can all do so, acting on Sally’s turn (the last in the initiative order established previously), and resolve their actions simultaneously. This way you can resolve three turns in the space of one (give or take).

In addition, attacking with others will bring more added benefits. Has anyone ever played Chrono Cross? In that game, each character had special abilities that only they could perform, and when they were in the party with certain other characters, those special abilities were converted into Dual or Triple Techniques, for a big boost in power. After Next would give little incentives for attacking with other characters, since you have to use the lowest initiative score. These would be class-based, and you’ll be able to purchase different effects. For instance, a Fighter might be able to add his STR bonus to the damage of characters attacking with him, or a Warlord might give companions a bonus to the attack roll, a rogue might get an automatic sneak attack, a sorceror might change the damage others deal to fire damage or simply add fire damage on top, and a Cleric might bless or heal those who attack with him. Of course the lower level effects would be the weaker ones, and the higher level effects would be more powerful. This would accelerate combats, as you’re basically folding a lot of buffs and things into an attack action.

It sounds pretty impressively powerful right now, and it would require a lot of number-crunching in order to find the right balance points for these things, but I think that these two things would actually help the party feel like it’s working together, give a more visceral, action-packed feel to combat, and most importantly, cut down the time it takes to kill a Minotaur or a Medusa in half.

OK, this one was pretty long, but hey, resolution time is a beast right now. I wanted to cut down as much as I possibly could to leave time for role-playing and socializing, while still having relatively in-depth combats. I think these designs will achieve that. Leave a reply telling me what you think, ideas to use these new approaches in interesting ways, or problems you see rising from them. In my next After Next article I’ll be exploring alternative resource management systems for different classes, to create a unique feel for different types of characters which are all fun, not just picking a place on the spectrum between ‘Gouge my eyes out boring’ and ‘Casters: the Accounting.’

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Who Makes Avengers So Good?

Avengers Poster

I am writing this on an international flight, just after finishing the Avengers on the little screen in front of me. This movie is so good, I could dedicate at least a half dozen articles to talking about why, but for now, I’m only going to focus on the element that hit me hardest this time.

There are a few roles which were both written and performed well enough to carry the whole movie. Actually, almost every role is that way, but there are a few who really reach out and grab you. I could dedicate an entire article to Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye each, and there’s already an article here talking about why Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner made us care about the Hulk in a new way. But I’m not going to focus on them today.

The three who were already famous – Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Chris Evans as Captain America – each explored new dimensions to their characters while delivering the greatest action-adventure romp of the year with the same winning mannerisms and characters that we have cheered for in the past. But I’m not going to talk about them, either. That’s right, one of the top factors contributing to the Avengers’ success is Loki, performed by the inestimable Tom Hiddleston.

Loki - Tom Hiddleston

Loki is the perfect villain for this group. His rhetoric about freedom being a dream humanity chases in a self-defeating frenzy is not what makes him so, nor do I believe it was meant to be. One of the movie’s central themes is the larger-than-life egos of the would-be heroes, and how they have to get above themselves to work together as a team and save the world. That’s one of those tried-and-true tropes of team-forming movies, from Remember the Titans to that gospel choir movie that just came out to this. And Loki is the embodiment of that idea, that reckless pride and disunity. Just listen to his first conversation with Thor; he considers himself a higher life-form than us mere mortals – as by rights any of the Avengers could – and wants to rule over a world to satisfy his bruised ego.

He always loses in direct confrontation: Cap and Iron Man subdue him; Thor consistently has him on the ground (Loki gets one cheap shot on him, but certainly doesn’t win any of their encounters); Hulk, of course, beats him like a rag doll; even Hawkeye’s arrow gets the better of him. When Agent Coulson shoots you through a wall and in the minds of the audience definitively wins that confrontation after you already killed him, you lose any credibility as a direct threat.

No, Loki is not a formidable foe to fight, but what he lacks in firepower he more than makes up for in treachery. He is a master manipulator, and he manages to get inside every one of the Avengers’ heads. He plants – or exposes – doubt and mistrust, and lets their egos and lack of team strength do the rest. With just the right push, they are separated, scattered, and defeated, simply by sticking to their guns.

That’s the mark of a good villain; turning the heroes’ strengths into your most potent weapons. The Joker nearly drove Batman over the edge in TDK by ramming him up against his own rules. The Green Goblin torments Spider-Man by using his own sense of self-sacrifice against him. And Loki uses the Avengers’ own self-confidence to tear them apart, letting him nearly complete his take-over-the-world scheme.

Why is this so important for a good villain? It’s not because it’s the most effective way to take over the world; it’s just one of a myriad number of effective tools. Being able to out-fight Thor, out-wrestle the Hulk, and/or out-strategize SHIELD* would have made Loki a lot more successful, but not much of a better villain.

When I say this ability to turn a hero’s strengths upside-down is important for a good villain, I mean that from a storytelling perspective: Good villains are ones which make the heroes face something about themselves and give them an opportunity to change. Sometimes the heroic thing to do is change, as in the Avengers’ case, but other times we want them to hold true, as in The Dark Knight. But it’s those moments when the hero is vulnerable and exposed somehow that the audience can really plug into them and it’s then that we cheer for them.

And the best way to create that scenario is to have the villain find a weakness in the hero’s heroic character to exploit. One thing that the Dark Knight Rises did right with Bane was the whole exposing Jim Gordon (and by extension Batman) as a liar bit. By turning the Pyrrhic victory from TDK on its head, he was hitting the good guys where it hurt. Unfortunately this wasn’t really a huge point and didn’t have much lasting effect for anyone; everyone still trusted Gordon and Batman, anyway, and no one brought it up again after the scene where it occurred.

But to wrap up, strong super hero stories are ones where the themes are reflected in the conflict between the hero and villain. The villain being overwhelmingly powerful and scary like Bane isn’t enough, unless that reinforces the main idea. Like Loki, a good villain often turns a hero’s strength into a weakness, which makes them face a turning point and do the right thing to overcome the situation. That is when the hero is most human, when we see ourselves in them. That’s when we cheer for them the most, because we feel for them.

We love to hate Loki, that’s what gives the scene where Hulk throws him around such a satisfying catharsis. He is such a good villain, and gets exactly what every good villain deserves; a sound thumping and then justice (we assume) off-screen (somewhere). 😛

So here’s to the good villains; you make the heroes heroic. You make everyone hate you and you get beat up and imprisoned and sometimes die, just so we can enjoy the good guys. No one ever even knows that without you the hero would be just an arrogant, lazy jerk with no need or desire to do good. Thanks for changing that. You’re the best of the bad.

Addendum:  We now know that Joss Whedon will return to direct Avengers 2!  That is great news.  Now what kind of villain will they face then?  If they follow my advice here, that’ll depend on what they want to explore with the heroes; how will the team grow and change in the next round of movies, and what brings them together to save the world again.  While his name may be Thanos, we don’t know just how he’ll approach the Avengers; we don’t know how he’ll challenge and test them.  What are your predictions?  Leave a reply with what you want to see from Thanos and why.  I’ll cover my thoughts in the near future.

*One might argue that Loki was able to nearly bring down the helicarrier and destroy all of SHIELD’s leadership and Phase 2, but I would reply that the attack on the helicarrier was, as far as I can tell, planned by Hawkeye: He shows his ability to think strategically frequently throughout the movie (he identifies and acts on Fury’s stalling tactic in the opening scene, he identifies what needs to be done to open the portal after a brief conversation with Dr. Selvig, and plans that attack as well, and then there’s his tactical guidance in the final fight) and Loki was relatively inept without his expertise to help out – the Tesseract was left defended only by its own shield and the Chitauri appeared to have no coordination or purpose in their attack whatsoever. So, no, Loki can’t out-strategize SHIELD; he still loses to an army of 6 and a borrowed nuke when he has thousands, if not millions of troops at his command. Hawkeye, on the other hand, is awesome.

This is just a …

Aside

This is just a short post to let you know that I have not given up in the slightest.  I am in the process of moving to China, and establishing reliable ways of getting around the so-called Great Fire Wall, and have even spent one recent night with no money, sleeping in an airport waiting room.  I have several posts I’ve been working on, one about After Next, one about the Avengers, those’ll be coming up shortly, hopefully in the next week.  Until then, I apologize for the delay, but insignificant things come after significant ones, and right now I’m dealing with multiple significant things that need my attention first.

I’ll be back soon!

D&D After Next

Continuing on from this post.

So, what design goals do think would help the D&D After Next (D&D AN) be a better game? First, a note on what I mean by ‘better.’ I want a new edition of D&D to lower the barrier-to-entry of the hobby, to expand the market, to make new gamers, not just pander to old ones. I want it to get at the core of what makes D&D fun, not what makes it familiar.

My mantra for this project will be; does this idea make the experience cleaner, faster, or richer? If it doesn’t do one of those things, it’s not going to make it into the game.

Cleaner-

I want the game to be simpler than some of its editions, and not simply by relying on the DM to make up most of it. I want a reasonable first-time player to feel fairly comfortable playing after their first session. I want to make the DM’s job as easy as possible. I want the rules to be clear and concise, and I want them all very easy to find; preferably all in one place, or in extremely handy places – no more flipping through chapter upon chapter of text trying to look stuff up. So, I want a simpler, streamlined D&D, in both presentation and content.

Faster-

My ideal session of D&D AN would last about 60-150 minutes, and cover a complete mid-sized adventure without feeling rushed. I don’t want to have to choose between spending time with family and friends and playing D&D; besides the obvious possibility of doing both simultaneously, I want to be able to do both in the same evening. Resolution time needs to be cut down by a significant margin; combats need to be shorter without being much more lethal. I aim for a combat to take between 10-25 minutes, not 30-40. I want less die rolls per action wherever possible. I have a lot of ideas for this that you’ll see in the next post.

Richer-

At the same time, I want a richer D&D: I want tools that emphasize the story-telling aspects, and meaningful, yet balanced character options. D&D AN needs to play to its strengths, considering the competition from other hobbies, and I think the story-telling aspect is one of the big ones. D&D AN will strive to help you craft and live your character’s story, with all the thrills, disappointments, and achievements that come with it. But besides story-telling, there needs to be a great amount of depth and range of character options. I will use the principles described here and here to make balanced, situationally beneficial options. No more trap classes or feats! No more pigeonholing race + class combos! No more identical class mechanics! And not just in the dungeon; I will make meaningful non-combat rules that have depth while keeping everyone able to participate (more on that soon).

Those are my broad goals. Specific benchmarks and ways to achieve them will be brainstormed and hashed out right here, for your entertainment/enrichment. My next article will focus specifically on how much faster it needs to be and how to get there.

Please leave a reply with your comments, ideas, or criticisms! Agree or disagree? What do you think D&D AN needs to be?

D&D’s Next Mistake

My first post on Dungeons & Dragons-

Dungeons & Dragons Adventuring Party

For those of you who know Dungeons & Dragons and D&D Next, skip the first 2 paragraphs.

For those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is the quintessential table-top role-playing game (TTRPG).  I’ll save the details for an RPG Primer in the future, but the fundamentals are as follows:  In D&D, you create a character and team up with the other players’ characters and go on adventures.  You can do pretty much whatever you want, using your character’s statistics and die rolls to determine success or failure.  You explore cavernous dungeons, evade cunning traps, and fight ferocious monsters, all to either get rich or rescue the princess or whatever else you can imagine.  It’s a free-form game, and one player must be the Dungeon Master (or Game Master, more generically), who designs the dungeons or adventures, and plays all the enemies and other non-player characters (NPCs).

Since its first release in 1974, it has been through many changes in system and rules, all of which have encouraged slightly different ways of playing.  When each new edition is rolled out, many players remain ardently attached to their older, favorite edition, while new players are attracted to the features of a new edition.  Currently, Wizards of the Coast – the company who owns D&D – is making a new 5th edition of D&D, currently called D&D Next.

To be honest, I’m not sure how excited I am for it.  The approach that the designers are taking is, in my opinion, a recipe for failure.  Let me explain what I mean:  Beginning in early 2011, Mike Mearls, the senior manager for research and development of D&D Next, began writing about a new take on some key features of D&D.  He talked about getting back to the basics of D&D while utilizing all the best innovations of later editions.  Polls were used, asking you which ‘option’ you would prefer.  If there weren’t several options discussed in the article, then polls asked how much you agreed with the idea presented in the article.  Then they announced that they would be making a new edition (in case there was anyone who hadn’t figured that out already), and started asking if X idea or Y idea feels more like D&D.  After the first playtest documents were released and tested, they sent out a questionnaire asking you to identify the most iconic spells from a list, again, asking which ones feel most important to your D&D experience.

OK, so what’s the problem?  The problem is, simply, that they are attempting to crowd-source their design goals.  They want the fanbase to tell them what they think will make a good D&D,  which means they are not pursuing any single vision of a good game.

In a nutshell, this:

Penny Arcade "The Way Forward"

This approach, I fear, will lead to a smattering of features and rules that are all over the place; the designers have even said themselves that the feel of the rules must trump the math of the system.  I don’t even know how you can choose between a feel and the math, since it seems to me that the math creates the feel, but that attitude, that non-commitment to a solid rule-set, combined with the idea that fans on the internet will give them a good vision for where the next edition needs to go, is terrible leadership on display.

Businesses need visionary leadership.  Steve Jobs was opposed to market research because he thought “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”*  While not everyone can, like Jobs, be right about that, the lesson to be learned is that customers don’t necessarily know what will make a good product:  Customers can identify issues, but rarely can they accurately identify solutions, and certainly not unanimously.  It’s up to Mike Mearls to listen to his user base and then have the knowledge and intuition to know how to solve those problems – possibly in ways no one on the internet has even thought of – and lead his team to execute those ideas.

But before you even get to that point, you need a clear foundation of goals you’re attempting to achieve.  The current generation of D&D, 4th Edition, actually had those; execution was very spotty, and some of their goals were incompatible or ill-advised, but they at least had a clear vision for the game.  So far, 5e has asked people on the internet to build its foundation while the team develops bits and pieces before it’s even in place.  I think that’ll end up as bad as it sounds.

That being said, 5e has already come out with some interesting new mechanics; Hit Dice, Advantage/Disadvantage, and the Fighter’s new Combat Superiority mechanic are all good starting places for great ideas.  But they are just means to no apparent end; WotC is on a wild goose chase, trying to satisfy all fans of all editions. The key rhetoric they’ve been using in promotional events and interviews is that this edition will unite the splintered fanbase by making it all things to all people. As Bill Cosby said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

With that in mind, I’ll be dedicating some of these posts to what my design goals would be for a new edition, and talk about ways to achieve them.  Some of these will be good, some won’t.  Much of my game design philosophy and knowledge comes from The Gaming Den, so feel free to check that place out, but be warned; it can be an unfriendly place.  As I go forward, please comment with your perspectives and ideas; your thoughts may inspire me or others to make great things in the future.

*That’s an extreme example, where he had the best creative minds in the world creating whole new products and platforms, making disruptive innovations, so market research wasn’t really that applicable.  WotC is not in that position with D&D Next, but compared to what’s happening, I’d welcome some managerial risk-taking.