All right, it’s time to return to the well of content that pretty much writes itself. It’s time to return to the easy button that is Ask Angry. Yes, yes, I’m phoning it in with another Ask Angry blitz! I’m going to keep sneaking these in every so often until I can return to making Ask Angry its own weekly thing.
And let me start with two quick questions that I keep getting on social media and in the e-mails:
Hey, Angry, what is UP with your update schedule?! Where is the Megadungeon?! What the hell is happening?! Why do you suck so bad?!
Yep, I do suck. I’ve basically only been focusing on regular weekly feature articles (like this one) for the last month and a half and the GM Word of the Week was on a hiatus for a couple of weeks. You’ll notice it is back now. And I know a lot of people have been very disappointed in the vacations that the Megadungeon seems to go on every few weeks.
A few things happened at once in my life. First of all, I ran into some money problems and had to take on a bunch of extra work hours at the day job. Second of all, GenCon happened. Third of all, as you might be aware, I’ve gotten involved in a relationship with @TheTinyDM. Unfortunately, we were separated by a bit of distance and also unfortunately, her financial situation also crashed and burned a bit recently. The good news is that GenCon is over. Well, that’s not good for me, but it’s good for my readers. So f$&% all y’all. GenCon is always the best four days of my f$&%ing year. But, yeah, you all need your Megadungeon fix. So I get to be f$&%ing miserable. More importantly, though, @TheTinyDM and I have worked out a plan and we’re going to be moving in together in about two weeks. This will greatly improve both of our financial situations and remove the distance component that has been eating up chunks of our time and money. She is also going to be helping me out on some of the back end site duties so that I can get caught up on some crap that desperately needs to be done. So, overall, once we get through the difficulty of moving her across state lines, things should return to regular normalcy here again. In the meanwhile, I’ve got some other fun content to put up, including two seminars from GenCon and I’ll be spending the next two weeks on getting caught up on other tasks while she gets ready to move. All in all, hopefully, this will mark a much needed return to a normal routine.
When are you going to do an Actual Play podcast?! Will you Livestream your games?! Is How to Even Play D&D still a thing?! Why do you suck so hard?!
I’m going to confess that that the How to Even Play D&D thing (which I had originally promised as a stretch goal on my Patreon) is something that I overpromised without realizing it. The scope of the project is far beyond what I can manage by myself. Producing quality audio content is much more difficult and time consuming than I had anticipated – even though I should have known given the number of podcaster friends I have. And if I can’t produce quality, I don’t have any interest in doing a project. Simply put, Angry don’t do crap. So, after a few weeks of recording some initial stuff for How to Even Play D&D and doing some editing work, I had to scrap everything I had because the quality just wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean the project is dead. But it is dead right now. If I’m going to do the cast, I’m probably going to have to partner with someone to produce the thing and that means I have to find the right partner and ensure that our visions align. And that is going to take some time.
As for why I don’t do Actual Play content, well, it’s pretty much the same reason. If I’m going to churn out a quality product, it’s going to take more time and effort than I have to put into producing it at this point. And I’m not interested in pouring more Crap-tual Play content onto the web because I feel like the market for poor quality Actual Play garbage is already pretty saturated. And frankly, as I was discussing with Tiny just last night, I’m not sure the current trend of Actual Play and Livestreamed game content is as good as the obsessive geek community thinks it is. To be quite honest, I think we’re living in a Gilded Age of RPGs. We all think things are going great, but there are some serious problems in the RPG community and in the industry, and they are about to catch up with us. That said, with the right partner, I would again consider doing the occasional Actual Play cast. I have been asked by a few casts if I would consider running a one-shot for them to record and my answer has gone from no to “yeah, I’d do that.” So, if you’re looking to snatch me up to run a one-time game you can record and turn into a cast, let me know. My schedule is tight, but we might be able to make it work.
As for Livestreaming? No. Just. F$&%ing. No. I have ZERO interest in running a game live for an audience. None. Sorry. I will do prerecorded content. But I won’t Livestream my games. And I’d be doing you and the gaming community a great disservice if I did. So, if you want me to run a Livestream game for your channel, the answer is no. Sorry.
Anyway, on to real questions.
Studious Newbie asks:
I have what I think is a really cool idea for a campaign that starts off with a shipwreck on an uncharted island. The game would largely be about exploration and survival. The problem for me is that I don’t think D&D 5e is well suited to such a campaign. Combat seems to be too much of a focus and other necessary/useful abilities seem to be largely glossed over. Can/should D&D be modified to create a more survivalist feel? Is there a system that would be better suited for giving the experience I want?
Okay, Newbie, I realize you’re a new fan of mine. You said so in the obligatory “Paragraph o’ Praise” that prefaced your question. Welcome to my site. I’m going to assume you know how this part works, now. Because I’m going to proceed to make fun of your question before I tell you why you’re wrong and tell you how to do it right.
Yeah, you’re right… there is nothing that a game that is literally about traveling into unexplored wilderness and not dying has to do with exploration and survival! You’re right! What a terrible idea for a D&D game! You should totally run it in some bulls$&% system like FATE or Dungeon World like every moron out there who buys into the whole “D&D is all about combat” bulls$&%! Holy mother of f$&%!
First of all, let’s address this “D&D is all about combat” bulls$&%. Because I’m f$&%ing tired of it. The game has a combat engine and it has rules for balancing combats and it assumes that, if you’re going to have combat, you’re going to have a few of them out of every day. And yes, combat is a major component of leveled class abilities. And yes, D&D includes rigorous strategic and tactical combat. But the combat rules are an EXTRA layer of rules that lay over the core rules. That is to say, the combat rules sit on top of the other rules of the game to handle the specific situation of combat.
At its core, D&D is about overcoming obstacles and challenges by using your raw physical and mental abilities and your specialized training. That’s why D&D’s core mechanic is about rolling ability checks and adding proficiency bonuses to reflect training. And honestly, that is ALL any RPG really needs. In point of fact, even attacks and spells and saving throws just fall into that same core mechanic. So the only things the combat engine provides is structure and balance. As I’ve noted before, you could run an entire combat in D&D without using most of the combat chapter if you were willing to wing it.
The point is, you’re going to find that MOST RPGs are built the same way: a core mechanic with extra mechanics for a variety of specialized situations layered on top. And that’s the way it should be. The core mechanic lets you resolve everything. The extra mechanics make it easier to handle certain situations. But there’s nothing specifically excluded.
And I think D&D might be a better fit for survival and exploration than you might think. There is just one major thing that will f$&% you up if you aren’t prepared for it.
First of all, survival is about resource management. Essentially, the core of any survival game is “you don’t have enough resources and gathering resources involves risks or expends resources.” For example, you might want to gather food. But gathering food requires you to go out in the wilderness. Going out in the wilderness requires you to endanger yourself and you might get hurt. If you get hurt, you won’t be able to gather resources. And you’ll die. Obtaining food becomes a matter of balancing the risk of obtaining food with your need for food.
Now, D&D has those components built in. It’s just that most groups ignore them. Open up your DMG and you’ll find rules for starvation (DMG 111), dehydration (DMG 111), disease (DMG 256-257), wilderness hazards (DMG 109-112), exhaustion (PHB 291) and so on. There are even rules for what spellcasters can and can’t do without limited supplies and arcane focusses. The TROUBLE you’re probably running into is that D&D doesn’t have all those survival meters that bulls$&% video games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky have. And that’s because those meters suck and they make for a crappy game, but no one seems to realize it. Except that it also does. Because the exhaustion mechanic is EXACTLY those meters. If you don’t have enough food and water or you get sick or exposed to the elements, you suffer exhaustion. Exhaustion makes you weaker and makes it more difficult to survive. And too much exhaustion kills you. In short, exhaustion IS your survival meter. All you have to do is game it a little. For example, you need food and water and rest to remove exhaustion. But you could also say you need shelter from the elements. And if you combine it with the disease mechanics, you can actually f$&% with the party a lot. If the party doesn’t have shelter from the elements during a chilly rain storm, they might get sick. If they get sick, one of the effects might be that they can’t recover exhaustion. If someone is running low on food and water, they might save with disadvantage to remove an illness.
Now, sure, the party can simply forage for food using the survival skill. And you might want to tweak the food yield from survival. As it stands right now, survival yields A LOT of food and water. But while the party is foraging for food, they aren’t doing anything else. And THAT part (not doing anything else) is precisely where an RPG differs from a survival video game.
Survival video games basically fall into two different types: the perpetual survival/exploration game and the game that isn’t crap. Perpetual survival/exploration games are games where you eventually settle into a routine. You go out, find food, find water, fill your resource meters, and then explore just to see what’s out there. The problem is, those games get boring. Especially if you translate them into a table-top RPG. Survival is actually really dull once you get good at it. And so, most video games add a crafting mechanic that is mostly about getting better at survival or getting better at exploring which lets you do more of it. It’s something you get addicted too.
On the other hand, the reason something like Minecraft has staying power over a lot of other survival games is because it has phases. When you first start Minecraft, you have very basic goals: food and shelter. Get those handled. Make sure you won’t starve and make sure you can hide for the night. After that, you improve your tools so you can defend yourself so you don’t have to hide for the night. Or you can craft a bed so hiding for the night is automatic. Eventually, you find livestock or plant wheat so that your food needs are not really a pressing issue. Basically, you become sustainable. Most survival games don’t allow you to become self-sufficient and that is why they don’t understand why Minecraft is so brilliant. AFTER you become self-sufficient in Minecraft, now you can start working on OTHER goals. You can embark on a massive construction project. Or you can explore dungeons and kill monsters and start enchanting. Or you can build a portal to the otherworld and try to kill the Ender Dragon with that complex quest line.
The point is, survival and random exploration (exploration to see what’s out there) gets boring eventually. No matter how neat the exploration is, the mode of play never changes. Video games get around that by making survival a matter of execution challenge. But most of the execution in D&D is about die rolls. So that isn’t going to fly.
The issue building a game about survival in D&D (or any RPG system) has less to do with the mechanics of the system and more to do with figuring out how to build choices into the game and get forces pushing and pulling the players. And how to build phases into the game play so your game is always evolving.
What are your shipwrecked characters trying to do? Survive forever? That’s boring. Eventually, they will get good at that. Ultimately, they should be trying to escape the island. Build a ship. Learn a teleport spell. Signal for help. Whatever. The point is, they need goals beyond don’t die. Don’t die is just not an interesting goal. And as the game progresses, goals need to be accomplished and then replaced with other goals.
So, early on, “don’t die” might fill all of their time. Foraging and searching for shelter might be enough. But then, they might discover signs that other people survived the shipwreck. So they might go searching for them. And that might lead to the idea of repairing the ship or building a new one. Or they might discover there are other inhabitants of the island. And that might lead to a potential rescue/escape story. They might get embroiled in the politics between rival tribes. And along the way, they still have to worry about the dangers of starvation, dehydration, disease, and wilderness hazards. And, of course, monsters are a big issue. That provides an evolving structure to the game that keeps it interesting.
But, the other issue is how you set up interesting choices. Because an RPG is all about choice. In video games, a lot of choices get embroiled in the game mechanics so that you barely even notice making choices. Again, in Minecraft, you often make survival choices without realizing it. You might wander far afield trying to wrangle some sheep you can lead back to your sheep pen. But if you wander too far, you get caught outside at night and you find yourself killed. You might limit the supplies you keep in your inventory so you don’t lose much when you die, but then you might run out of food if your explorations take you too far. You don’t realize you’re playing that game, but you are.
In D&D, choices are a lot more overt. And you need to make them obvious. Foraging is the least efficient way to get food because it wastes an entire day and it might only yield a day worth of food (if you Tweak the yield). Exploring might yield better sources of food, but it might yield nothing. But exploring can also lead to interesting choices. Instead of foraging for small game and berries and s$&%, the party might find dire boar tracks. They can track the dire boar and get several days of good food, but that involves fighting dangerous animal. Later, might have the opportunity to trade with the local villagers for food, but the villagers might demand dangerous work or something morally yucky.
If one of the party members get sick, they might be able to find medicine in the swamp or the jungle, but that’s dangerous. Of course, you have to use their knowledge skills to tell them about these possibilities. “Various plants that can provide medicine grow in swamps and/or the jungle, if you’re brave enough.” If they cover long distances, they might use up days of food and foraging slows them down, requiring them to eat more food. Maybe they find a religious shrine devoted to a tribal god filled with offerings of food. Do they take the food? They might end up cursed. Or hunted by a local tribe. Do they kill the tribesmen? Then, they are at war.
And then there’s always the possibility for disaster. They find a cave to serve as a shelter, go out one day, and come back to find their cave is home to a dinosaur-bear (because owls are birds and birds evolved from dinosaurs so, in the past, there must have been dinosaur-bears).
The point is to think in terms of television shows about survival. Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek Voyager, for example. Yes, survival was what they were doing, but each episode involved a specific incident or choice or event that played into the survival theme. The game still has to be an interesting and evolving story. Don’t Starve the table-top RPG is just going to suck.
And by the way: the one thing that will f$&% you up? Some spells are designed to basically be “survive for free” spells. Creating and purifying food and water, for example, are spells that will f$&% up your game. The ease with which paladins can cure disease will also f$&% up your game. Feel free to remove or tweak those.
Finally, I would also recommend going a little hardcore. If someone has exhaustion levels, maybe they can’t recover hit dice with a long rest. That’ll help drain HP over time if the party is failing at survival. And that will force them to waste time foraging instead of on a long term plan.
Is there ever a time to let players know the specific DC or AC of something, or should those always be exclusive knowledge of the DM? Likewise, which checks should the DM roll privately, instead of the player rolling, i.e. perception?
First of all, Lucidish, I think you mean “e.g.” not “i.e.” I.e. stands for “id est” which is Latin for that “that is.” I.e. is used to restate something. THAT IS, it’s used to put something in different words. E.g. stands for “explemi gratia,” which is Latin for “by way of example.” Thus, e.g. is used to provide a specific example. E.g.: suggesting that perception might be an example of a check a DM should roll secretly. You can remember this using the simple mnemonic: “I.e. for in essence, e.g. for example given.”
This question is one that comes up a lot. And it ALWAYS baffles me. GMs seem to have this weird desire to keep DCs secret for frankly inexplicable reasons. If you ask, said GMs usually vomit forth the word “metagaming” and then I have to beat their heads in with a blunt object. E.g.: a Latin-to-English dictionary.
There are two very good reasons to let players know the DCs they are rolling against. First of all, DCs (even AC which is just another kind of DC) represent actual things in the world that the PCs should be able to see. For example, imagine three different cliffs. One is a DC 5 climb, one is a DC 15 climb, and one is a DC 30 climb. Now, try to imagine WHY the DCs are what they are. The DC 5 one is probably rough and filled with handholds and footholds and maybe even sloped gently with plenty of corners to anchor in. The DC 15 climb is probably rough and rocky, but offering handholds, and is mostly vertical. That DC 30 cliff is probably sheer and mostly flat with a few cracks to gain purchase in. It might even be sloped outward. Notice how all of those things I mentioned are things AN ACTUAL CLIMBER COULD ACTUALLY SEE!
It’s easy to forget that part of ANY skill is assessing the difficulty of a task. The better you are at something, the better you are at knowing what tasks are beyond you and what tasks are easy. Misjudging a task is ALWAYS possible, but that’s why, in the end, success is determined by random die roll. When the climber attempts the DC 15 climb and fails, part of the reason might be misjudging the difficulty he could handle.
DCs give us a common language for communicating about a world we can’t see and about skills we might not have. The player can’t see the cliff, no matter how well you describe it. And if both the player and the GM aren’t expert climbers, no description can convey the essential information about how difficult the climb might actually be for an expert. DC and skill numbers give everyone at the table a common ground. They are a language by which we can talk about the world. Sure, they shouldn’t EVER replace visual descriptions. But they SHOULD supplement it.
The other reason to share DC and AC information is that it allows the players to make intelligent choices that their characters WOULD make. For example, take the expert climber again. With the DC 5 climb, the climber might take only basic precautions because the climb is quick and easy. But, with the DC 30 climb, the climber will take lots of extra precautions. He might even search for alternatives to free climbing. Like using ropes, grappling hooks, pitons, finding another way, etc. That’s especially true if he’s trying to help non-expert climbers up the cliff.
Role-playing games are about making choices and overcoming challenges. Forcing the players to behave at random by hiding information from them that their characters SHOULD have and SHOULD be allowed to make choices literally f$&%s with the basic idea of role-playing. The rules and mechanics of the game are PART of the language of the game that help the players make choices about a world they aren’t actually in and characters they aren’t actually… are. Whatever.
Apart from that, you can turn the whole question around: is there a GOOD reason NOT to tell the players the DCs and AC? What will that change? And will that change actually ruin the game? The word “metagaming” doesn’t count as an answer. It’s a bulls$&% non-word with no meaning. So don’t even try.
As for the question about whether you should roll any checks in secret? Well, some GMs do like to hide certain checks where the mere existence of the check would give something away. And Perception is the one that always comes up. GMs are loathe to say “roll a Perception check for absolutely no reason and don’t worry about it.” They are afraid that if the players know they had to make a Perception check or see that the result was a 4 or something, they will… I don’t know. What can players really do with that information? Seriously. The PCs walk into a room, they have to make a Perception check, they see nothing, but they suspect they failed. Now what? What will they do? They have literally no idea what to look for. And they can’t just make another Perception check. I mean, the GM shouldn’t LET THEM make another Perception check just because they ask. Instead, if they fan out and start exploring and interacting with the environment, the GM might allow them checks for specific actions. But searching the room and potentially succeeding or failing is also part of the game.
Personally, I kind of like the paranoia that follows a Perception check the PCs obviously failed and watching them flail around trying to decide what to do about it. I imagine the characters in the game suddenly going “guys, I’ve got a bad feeling about this room” or “I just got a sudden chill, we’re in trouble” and then frantically trying to decide how to get prepared for the completely unexpected. In dangerous environments, the PCs SHOULD be on edge like this and jumping at shadows and half-imagined noises. It keeps them jumpy.
But, hey, if you want to hide those checks from the players, go to town. It won’t break the game. I just don’t understand what it adds that is better than the paranoia over obviously failed checks with seemingly no cause. That just makes me giggle.