John Wick penned a controversial article, “Chess is not an RPG,” purporting to define role-playing games, which is only slightly easier than rhyming with “orange,” if the blogosphere’s reaction is any indication. He says that having a working definition helps Game Masters focus on the right elements of play. Here I agree, though I think it’s really more important for game designers than GMs. Either way, to help GMs, Mr. Wick defines role-playing games as games “in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.” From this he concludes that the focus many games and players have on elements of balance is misplaced, since weapon tables, for instance, have little to do with character motivations or story and don’t advance those elements of the experience. On both counts, I respectfully disagree. Continue reading
My work on After Next (and this blog in general) has been completely side-lined this semester, and I apologize for that. Hopefully I’ll have more time to devote to it in the future, but until I’m more sure, I’ll try to keep posting shorter things that arise out of what I see on forums or my thoughts on network TV shows or who knows what.
Today I want to talk about Save or Die/Lose spells in games like D&D; an ability (often a spell) which takes out a target in one shot, usually with a lower probability of success than a less lethal ability. In D&D the target rolls a Saving Throw to try to avoid some or all of the effects of spells, hence the name. The classic example is the Medusa’s gaze attack which turns on-lookers to stone. These tend to be somewhat controversial in game circles. I want to briefly consider some different implementations thereof and talk about the issues they raise for designers and some theoretical implementations that would address some of those issues.
In older editions of D&D as I have come to understand it*, powerful magic, including SoD spells, had a chance of backfiring or otherwise harming the caster. This dramatically increases the risk associated with using such magic, with the payoff being dramatic, powerful effects like instant death or petrification. In addition, due to their lower save DCs and higher save bonuses for many classes, SoDs were a large gamble to cast and likely to fail regardless of the risk of backfire. This about evened-out their utility to casters, PC and NPC alike.
D&D 3.5 ported over the spells from AD&D 2e without much alteration, but changed both the way spell DCs were set (now based on the spell level and caster’s stats) and the risks associated with casting powerful magics; namely, it was all removed. Casters in 3.5 had the risk removed and the chance of failure increased so that SoD spells were superior to almost any other choice of spell.
So, many people advocate simply going back to the AD&D paradigm, where casting spells was risky and the enemy made their save and negated the attack entirely more often than not. While that would be a step forward, balance-wise, I think it’s kind of missing the point. Casters didn’t like how that worked in AD&D, hence 3rd Edition changed it. By focusing on just the spell’s odds of success/backfiring, we’re either putting arbitrary mechanical frustrations on the caster, or, by removing them, on the targets of those spells. There’s an alternative way of looking at this problem, which I believe solves all of those problems while simultaneously making the game actually more interesting to boot.
The inspiration for this train of thought came from Extra Credits, which did an episode on a relevant topic a few weeks ago, called “Counter Play.”
The main thrust of the idea is this:
When designing an ability or a mechanic, you can’t only be thinking about how to make that ability or mechanic interesting for the player who gets to use it, you also have to think about how its interesting for the players its used on. And on a more rigorous level, it’s the idea that a mechanic or ability in a multiplayer game should increase the number of meaningful choices available both to the player using it and the player its being used on.
TTRPGs are not considered multiplayer games, but the psychology and importance of this principle is true because at the combat round level, they function exactly like one; the DM is one player controlling a single monster on any given turn (mostly), and the player is controlling their one character, and they are slinging these abilities back and forth in a way that is essentially indistinguishable from a competitive multiplayer game.
EC goes on to make the point that abilities that are an interesting tactical option for the user but not for the target is a good way to create frustrated targets. However, when you consider both sides of that equation, you create a richer play experience for both. So the question of whether or not SoDs are cool for the SoD-user is not the only consideration we have to take into account when designing SoDs. We also have to account for the SoD receiver’s experience and what options SoDs provide to them. Obviously, the only tactical implication of a traditional SoD for a target is “jack up that save modifier in your build!” That is one-dimensional (it’s not really a choice if it’s the only way) and irrelevant in combat (the decision is made outside of combat and nothing in combat will change it). This is not an enriching option as-is.
So SoDs need to be counter-able by the party, whether that’s by beginning an SoD at the end of one turn and then casting on the next and where taking any damage in-between either negates or greatly diminishes its effect if cast, SoDs only working on targets below a certain HP threshold, or something else that gives the opposing party/character an actual tactical option it can take in the midst of combat to attempt to prevent or counter it.
A third consideration for these mechanics in a TTRPG, I would say, is how it interacts with the user’s allies. You want abilities that interlock with the roles/actions of others, and gives them interesting options on their turns, too. The mundane half of the party’s contribution to the battle can’t be meaningless with one successful SoD. The mundanes have to contribute to SoDs somehow, whether that’s as simple as protecting the caster from having their concentration broken during casting, or contributing to meeting the necessary HP threshold for the spell to work, or some other combination of tactics.
Also, giving mundanes SoD abilities certainly couldn’t hurt, either. At some point a rogue should be able to just sneak up and stab a guy through the heart, and the fighter should be able to cut off the monster’s head with one mighty blow, so long as those have tactically interesting mechanics backing them up.
I’ll come out with some samples, but first I think I want to talk about the tactical mini-game. Grid-less tactical mini-game, as has been described previously.
*My understanding of the specifics of older D&D editions, I admit, is pretty lacking, so this is going off of what I have come to understand from others.
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.
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
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.’
Continuing on from this post.
So, what design goals do I 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.
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.
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.
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?