A week or two after I pre-ordered my ticket for Salt Lake Comic Con 2016, I got a message on my facebook (maintained almost solely for communication with the Adventurer’s League) that they needed volunteers to DM at the con. If you volunteered for enough hours, you could get a free convention ticket. Since the Friday and Saturday schedules, normally jam-packed with interesting content, were actually kind of sparse this year (and conversely, the Thursday schedule was pretty awesome despite being the least busy day), I ended up volunteering for quite a few hours despite already having a wrist band in the mail. I wound up with a spare wrist band that I never wound up finding a recipient for. Everyone was either busy, had already bought a wrist band, or had moved to North Carolina. Oh, well.
As usual for Salt Lake, something like half of the panels were all about books and writing, with television and movies fighting over the rest. In terms of star power, this was a banner year, since Mark Hamill showed up. John Cena was also there, but so far as headlines go, the guy who is currently playing Luke Skywalker in movies right now is pretty hard to top. I don’t really care about the celebrities myself (I like Mark Hamill’s work and all, but I wouldn’t pay more than $5 for anyone’s signature), but I still get a rush of undeserved pride from having a convention in the same place I happen to live be a big enough deal to attract people that important.
I don’t know if it’s because I delayed volunteering until the panel schedule was released (you had to volunteer for specific hours and I didn’t want to commit myself before I knew what I’d be missing – good idea, too, or else I probably would’ve packed Thursday and left Saturday empty) or just because I checked the box that said I was open to running chargen, but I ended up with almost nothing but chargen on my schedule. I have now gotten very good at explaining how to make D&D characters to strangers.
This was more fun than it sounds like, although that’s probably at least partly because I get kind of a thrill from being part of a team that’s doing something cool. Still, D&D 5e’s character creation really is easy to explain to people and is comprised almost entirely of interesting decisions that make intuitive sense to newcomers. Every time someone asked to make a character I’d ask them if they’d played D&D before, and most of them answered either in the negative or that they were coming over from 3.5e, and this was not remotely a problem (those who had played 5e I just handed a copy of the basic rules and they were set). If they’d never played D&D before, I’d show them how the game worked with a very simple example: Your dungeon master, the guy who runs all the monsters and shopkeepers and questgivers and so forth, says you’re in a cave, and there’s a goblin here who’s going to stab you in the face. You say that you’re going to stab that goblin in the face first. You roll a die, and look up the face-stabbing modifier on your character sheet, then add it to the result and tell the DM the total. The DM consults his notes to see what total is required to hit the goblin, and then tells you if you hit it. This takes two minutes and will bring anyone who’s played Skyrim (or the Witcher 3 or whatever) up to speed on how to play D&D.
After that I ask them to pick a class from one of the base four offered in the basic rules (Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, Wizard), and from there I can list the basic races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) along with a suggestion as to which one best fits the class they’ve picked. Either they go with my recommendation or they pick a race they like. One person made a Halfling Fighter just to defy expectations. The class gives them saves and a list of skill proficiencies to pick from, and I can make recommendations for the skills as well. Most classes I tell them to pick Perception and then there’s two other stand-out skills that might come in handy, except Rogue, where it’s Perception and Stealth and then a slightly larger amount of skills that might come in handy. The new player still feels like they’re making choices that make sense at this point. A Fighter choosing between Intimidation and Athletics isn’t doing any accounting, he’s figuring out if he wants to be scary or athletic. This kind of self-expression is way more engaging than shuffling around numbers you don’t begin to understand, and that engagement convinces people to stick around long enough to understand those numbers.
Depending on class, they’ll also have some spells, fighting styles, or expertise to pick. If they’re a Cleric, I offer them a default god (Moradin for Dwarves, Chauntea for Halflings, Tyr for everyone else) and offer to go over the full list if they want to pick a specific deity. Exactly one time someone offered to take a look at the full list. She decided to play a Cleric of Leira, the goddess of illusions, who was disguised as a Cleric of Lliira, the goddess of joy. There’s way too many of these decisions to go into here, but like the skills, all of them mean something to players who don’t have any experience with the game yet (because they are still making their first character). It’s easy to explain to a player how picking a Fighter’s fighting style is important even if they have no understanding whatsoever of the specific numerical bonuses granted. Archery means you’re good with a bow, Great Weapon Fighting makes you good with two-handed weapons, Two Weapon Fighting makes you a dual-wielder, Protection is for sword-and-board, and so on. Once they’ve made a selection, I can explain to them how that specific option makes them better at the thing they want to do and ignore the rules for all the others. There’s only one or two special features to memorize, so even new players can keep the rules in their head, and since by now I’ve explained how proficiencies/saves work (add your attribute bonus and, if the bubble is filled in, also your proficiency bonus – easy), they’ve got a good enough handle on the rules to know how that affects play. They don’t know how significant a bonus it is, but they know what it’s a bonus to, so we’re still on basically the same page.
If you want to ignore optimization until you know the system better, you can do that. Make choices based purely on flavor. There’s no feats that might synergize very well or absolutely atrociously in a way that’s opaque to people who don’t crunch the numbers, there’s no bean counting skill points and no trap option of splitting your points when it is always better to specialize them except when you spend just enough of them on a skill you don’t care about to get a synergy bonus to one you do care about. Sure, if you want to wreck the game forever you want to play a Necromancer Wizard (or Cleric, if you’re using DMG options) and abuse the Hell out of the non-concentration duration of Animate Dead, but you aren’t going to accidentally break the game by playing Druid and using Wild Shape (because maybe you just like the idea of turning into a bear) nor will you be completely gimped if you pick Monk (because maybe you just want to be fantasy Jackie Chan).
People can and do make chargen choices because of whatever happens to appeal to them and that basically never results in the game being ruined. You don’t have to learn how to play the game and then start having fun with it. There is no corpus of banned classes, feats, and spells you need to know to avoid in advance for fear that you accidentally ruin everything (except, in fairness, the skeleton army Necromancer, which is not even a particularly unusual way to play your Necromancer, but still, that’s only one build and it won’t become an issue until at least mid-level, and likely not until high level when the number of slots you can cast Animate Dead from gets very high). You can learn how to play the game while having fun with it. As an added bonus, you don’t have to put up with partisan fanboys yapping about how anyone with a broken build is intentionally ruining the game, as though there are no new players for the system ever (and with the attitude of “anyone lacking system mastery sufficient to avoid ruining our incredibly fragile system is unwelcome,” there’s not going to be many new players to go around).
Backgrounds and faction work the same way and probably don’t need to be elaborated upon, but clever readers will have noticed a gap, here. Ability scores (STR, DEX, and so on) come pretty early on in chargen. You can’t assign proficiencies or attacks without them, and without proficiencies you can’t properly explain classes or backgrounds and without attacks you can’t do equipment. Quite a bit of this house of cards falls down without first explaining ability scores. After asking for class and race, it’s the next thing I walk people through, and it’s always a chore for both of us. I show them the array, and then I have to sit them down for a goddamn history lesson ability scores. Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that I like explaining the history of stuff, and that’s probably played a role in why I explained it this way in particular, but it’s not like I have to or felt the need to explain skill points or non-weapon proficiencies to explain 5e skills, or to explain D&D’s roots in Chainmail and how most units used to have a single hit point in order to explain why armor grants AC and not DR. My specific route to clarifying things might be unique to me, but the need for clarification is probably common to most new players.
The difference between the ability score and the bonus it gives, the way that the ability score is meaningful solely because it determines the bonus, and the way that your race will give you a bonus that is most conveniently phrased as “+2” or “+1” but which has nothing to do with the identically phrased ability modifier that you will actually use, all of these cause confusion and have to be clarified. It’s a relatively minor speedbump because it’s only once, but it’s still a pointless legacy system. Just have the bonuses go from -10 to +10, with -5 to +5 being the standard human range, and have level 4 give you a +1 to any attribute. That does mean feats and races would have to be rejiggered, which means as an Adventurers League DM I can’t actually do this, because it’s a matter of actual house ruling. I can’t just present the rules differently, ignoring the 1-20 ability scores but not actually contradicting them, because feats don’t gel with that. As a designer, though, it would not be hard to design feats around ability scores that went from -5 to +5 (for PCs who are actually taking feats). Just pump up the ones that currently grant ability bonuses to be worth the tradeoff without those bonuses. Yes, that will take some thought and design work, but it’s not impossible or even particularly harder than designing feats in the first place, and it would’ve made 5e chargen into a home run. It’s still probably the best chargen I’ve ever seen. Unlike FATE it doesn’t give you a totally blank space and tell you to fill in whatever you want for aspects (this often leads to option paralysis, especially for new players), and unlike Pathfinder it doesn’t ask you to futz around with skill points or feats that are cumbersome and easy for new players to mess up in a way that makes your character completely non-viable. Non-5e games certainly have things to recommend them over 5e, but chargen is spectacular. Except for the ability scores. For the love of God please make an optional rule for more straightforward ability scores and make it mandatory in the AL.
On Saturday I was able to DM some games, and that was generally speaking a lot of fun. The basic pitch for the first set of five one-hour mini-adventures of season 5 is that the remnants of Tiamat’s hoard are still scattered about the Greypeak Mountains where (spoiler alert!) her summoning was prevented, and the heroes are going to go and track them down because hey, treasure. During these explorations it comes out that various giant clans are coming to blows in the area, and presumably some kind of plot will happen relevant to that as the season unfolds. So being that every adventure I ran had “go get treasure” as its stated objective, you’d think I wouldn’t have had any trouble with players trying very hard to avoid the plot in order to go get treasure. Like, the plot here is “go into cave, fight baddies, get treasure,” so it’s not like you need to jump the rails to get your treasure here. Despite this, one player did in fact try to loot a giant buried under rubble, and when informed that the giant had no shoes (and if he did have shoes it’s not like hill giant shoes are worth more than maybe a few silver for their component parts) and that no, his level 2 character was not strong enough to yank out a 600-pound hill giant buried under enough rubble to instantly kill a 600-pound hill giant in order to find other loot, instead of taking the corridor towards the treasure at the end of the adventure, that character instead asked if he could harvest the giant’s bones. I don’t know how he planned to sell the giant bones. He wasn’t generally a bad player at all. He was laid back and fun to play with. He didn’t go nuts trying to Greyhawk the goblins they’d killed before that. He just really wanted to loot this hill giant for some reason. I’m not going to name him because, again, he was generally a pretty cool player and the last thing I want is for my blog whinging to follow him around.
The D&D Adventurer’s League was on the balcony overlooking the bazaar, and on the same balcony was MechWarrior. Or maybe BattleTech. I’m still kind of unclear on what exactly the difference is between the two. There was a simplified version and a more complex version, but the simplified version was called Alpha Strike. This game is super crunch heavy but I had gobs of fun with it. I do have to say I prefer the Alpha Strike version, which is simple enough that you can plausibly play with four units to a player right out the gate without absolutely burying anyone in new rules, but I found the classic version plenty of fun as well, although any more than the 1v1 match we had and it would’ve gotten very hard to keep track of. I do think the people running the game would’ve been better served showing up with more redundant mechs. Playing a Clint swarm with one heavy hitter to round things out would’ve been much easier than a Clint, a Centurion, a Shadow Hawk, and a Zeus. I’m quite positive the game is more fun with more diversified mechs once you know what you’re doing, but you want to keep complexity down for new players and focus on your selling point: Rolling on a chart to see what part of the enemy mech’s guts you just blew up. It would actually be fine if a team run by an experienced player had more variety (perhaps at a total point value disadvantage to help give the new player an edge in the face of both greater variety and greater experience arrayed against them, to hopefully leave them with a good impression of the game), because having a wide variety of enemies to explode makes the game more fun without seriously increasing the complexity on the new player’s end.
I really enjoyed both BattleTech (or whatever it is that I played exactly) and DMing for the Adventurer’s League. Despite my distaste for how difficult it is to keep track of the rules and how unfriendly it is to players who don’t happen to have reliable access to at least three other people to play, I do like the League just fine, it’s just that gushing about how much I like something is not usually interesting (I managed to wring a couple of paragraphs about 5e chargen but even that I topped off with its biggest weakness).
Those of you who have attended this convention or others like it may be wondering: Where are all the Harley Quinns? They blanket the convention floor like winter snow, so how is it that I have not yet posted a single picture of Harley Quinn so far? Well, tune in on Friday, when this blog will be proud host to a veritable parade of Harley Quinn pictures. I try to get a picture of every Harley Quinn in the convention. My current record is 42 (yes, really) from the 2016 FanX. Let’s see if this year can top that.