Ask Angry: Oh No, More Answers

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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.

By the way, you can find out to Ask Angry a question here.

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.

Lucidish Asks:

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.

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36 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Oh No, More Answers

  1. I sometimes have my players roll perception checks for no real reason- then If they fail, it might not necessarily mean an ambush, they know I just fuck with them sometimes.
    (If they roll exceptionally well, I tell them they are certain there are no ambushes/traps in the room, which they also appreciate.)
    But yeah, if they only roll perception when there’s danger, players know something is up.

    • I will often require a Perception / Investigation check, and upon success I tell the PCs “You are absolutely certain that everything is at it appears to be.”

  2. I reaaaaallly like the answer to the last question. Total agreement.

    Also, good to see Ask Angry back.

    Also also, as far as I am concerned, Megadungeon can go on vacation for as long as it wants, so take your time. 😉

    • Is like to offer the other perspective here for the sake of balance: I love the Megadungeon and I miss it terribly. Thanks for the explanation Angry, I hope the various things you mentioned are sorted out and that we’ll get some more sweet Megadungeon goodness soon.

      • Don’t worry. I’m not retiring it. Far, FAR more people like it then don’t like it. Also, it’s not like I don’t also do other articles. So anyone pushing for me to drop the Megadungeon is basically just being a dick by trying to deny OTHER people an OPTION that doesn’t cost them anything at all.

  3. For the survival type of game, you could also use the optional rule on dmg about converting short rest in long rest and long rest in week rest. Just my 2cent, pls Angry dont be angry with me..

  4. When it comes to AC, will, fortitude, and reflex, most of my players are smart enough to figure out the numbers with simple math. If you roll a 19 after bonuses and it hits, and then your team mate rolls a 16 after bonuses and it doesn’t hit, then the creature’s AC is greater than 16, but 19 is enough. Any more hits on 17 and 18, and the players will know what the AC is by process of elimination. They’ve now got a general idea of how high it is that they need to roll. This of course gets a little more complicated with certain classes hitting different defenses, but it has the same effect over a longer time

    As far as perception and other skill checks, I had been on the fence about telling player (I started DMing just short of a year ago) but would always end up telling. The cliff face is a great example. I won’t always outright give the number, but if someone has a high skill modifier I might say something like “You’re pretty confident you can scale that cliff. You’d probably need a 20 or so.”

    • I made it a point to tell players in my 4e game when they missed defenses by 1; partly as that’s a nice consolation prize, especially because they got a Communal Weapon which could add 1 to an attack roll or saving throw after the fact. Knowing when that matters is important.

      Skill challenges still confuse me, as some examples I’ve seen have them providing information about the skills required and the difficulties thereof on certain check results. I’m running a prepublished game (badly, I know) and I settled on providing the primary skills and their difficulty levels up-front. They still turn into a raw numbers game due to the narrow margin of failure permitted, though changing consequences based on skills used helps.

      • I run 4e as well. They were the books we had on hand, and nobody really minded what edition we played. Anyway, to the point:

        Whether it’s someone hitting an enemy with their sword or climbing a mountain, if someone “misses” by 1, i usually just give it to them. 1 is so trivial to me. Yes, it draws that nice fancy “line in the sand” but it’s 1 to me. Worst case, i’ll give it a pass but dock a bit of damage or add in a bit of flair to the act. So if it’s a hit, then it’s “your sword grazes the orc’s shoulder, but just enough. roll for damage.” then i openly or secretly subtract a few points off that damage. If it’s the cliff thing and they miss by 1….same thing. I just give more detail “you scramble up the wall with little difficulty, but more rock falls from your movement than you would have liked. you may have alerted creatures living in the area.” etc.

        Skill challenges were a great idea in 4e but they don’t deliver well. Angry has an AMAH-ZING article on them here:

        My first skill challenge (straight from the 4e DMG 1, i believe) had a party of four literally wandering the woods, survivng off the land. Single dice rolls get boring as all heck, even with some storyline details. Plus, a lot of it is chance then. No one like to hear “you got lost. you’re starving.” Plus, there are tons of ways around that (rituals that provide whole banquets, etc).

  5. My take on DCs is that I should be able to describe the situation well enough the players can figure it out. I might say, “This cliff looks easy to climb, so easy a one-armed cleric carrying a shield could do it” while this other cliff “Looks like it might even give a spider a challenge.” As a general rule, I discourage players from talking about their stats to each other, but to try to describe them in real terms. “The dragonborn fighter is strong enough to lift an elephant,” while “The monk is only a tiny bit smarter than a box of rocks.”

    That being said, it only takes a few whacks at a target to figure out their AC. If they’ve fought the opponent before, there’s no reason not to reveal it. If it’s a new opponent, I’ll reveal it after a round or two, figuring the characters can judge the relative difficulty of scoring a hit compared to their own defenses.

    With perception, I don’t believe in making the characters roll just to screw with them. It’s a role-playing game, not a dice-rolling game. Rolling dice is a mechanic to determine an outcome when it the result could be in doubt, or if the outcome should be randomly determined. This is what passive perception is for. Don’t be afraid to use it. On the other hand, if there is something that I deem to be difficult to notice, or there’s an opponent who is intentionally trying to hide from the party, I will roll the FIRST attempt secretly. If a player succeeds, I’ll let them know either out loud or by passing a note (depending upon the situation and the character.) This is enough to get the party into hyper-awareness mode, whether the player reveals or not. At this point, as characters search out specific things, the rolls are done openly.

    But this strays from the topic a bit- revealing the DC. There are times when revealing the DC gives too much information about something that I don’t want to share. Last night’s session involved a high-level caster casting a charm spell, enhanced by a magic item. The DC was 22 for humans and 17 for fey (the magic item specifically states that fey are not immune to its charming effects, but they still have a bit of resistance). Revealing the DC would allow the players to gain a reasonable estimation of the caster’s level and/or the nature of the magic item. At this stage in the campaign, I don’t want this information out there. They only need to know that whatever it was, it was powerful, and powerful enough to overcome the fey’s immunity (the one half-elf in the party rolled a 4.) Even with that information, they didn’t raise the question about why the fey character was affected! (Oh,yeah, players are stoopid. I tend to forget that sometimes.)

    • My counterpoint to the last paragraph (giving away DCs gives away information) has its place, but there are times I want to convey information about the game in a concrete way. Bad way of saying it, but here’s an example:

      My players were up against a giant monster, famed in song and story. Being players in a DnD campaign, they went up against monsters of that sort every other day(level 7 or so). It wasn’t doing that much damage for their level per round (average of 9 on a hit, four attacks), so they felt pretty secure until the end of the first round, when they had been hitting it enough to approximate the creature’s total hit points: 2000. They got the hell out of dodge.

      • Hit points is one of those stats I don’t readily advertise. I have little wooden disks (I bought from Hobby Lobby) where one side is painted yellow and the other side is painted red. When the creature (PCs included) takes enough damage that they’ve lost 1/3rd of their hit points, I put the disk, yellow side up, next to or under their mini on the map. When they’ve taken 2/3 damage from their total, I flip the disk to red.

        Players good at math can generally estimate total hit points based on this. This reduces the analysis paralysis that occurs when the healer decides which spell to use to heal an ally. If they are damaged, but not in yellow, healing hand. If they are in yellow or red, go with cure wounds.

        These indicators help me as well when deciding what a creature does on its turn. Does it stay in the fight or does it consider retreating? If the creature has any brains at all, it can decide that it’s life is flashing before its eyes and it’s time to get the hell out of dodge. Especially if none of the PCs have taken any significant damage!

        • This is actually a fantastic idea. In my campaign which ended, the most common words I heard from my players is “How hurt does he look?” I think I will implement this idea to some extent in my next campaign. Wooden platforms might not be perfect as we use a mix of Lego Minifigures, Standard minis, and Pathfinder Cardstock mini’s. Thanks for sharing!

        • I actually do the same thing with the flipped coins, although we were using spare scrabble tiles for a good while. Flipped over always meant bloodied for us.

          As far as HP goes, I don’t ever tell. Instead, a few players have items with dailies that will garner info on certain DCs or HP or vulnerabilities, so it’s up to them to decide to use those or not for a particular encounter. (I homebrew pretty much everything i come in to contact. Most of our D&D funds go towards ink for my printer and cardstock xD )

  6. For perception I’d be tempted to hide something I desperately need to keep secret behind the room’s detail. I.e. (how do you capitalize this, send help), the room has a base DC of 15, and with it you get a description of the room. The ninja hiding in it adds another five to that before you see her. You could even call it out as a matter of habit with a disclaimer, e.g. “you can see a pile of lumpy sacks in the dark corner, but if anything or anyone is hiding there you can’t tell from where you are,” so players could know there might be something else. It also would cover the trickiest part of resolving a failure on an information gathering test, that they don’t know more about it than when they started. I will note I am a dumb idiot who talks about games he doesn’t run, so mileage may vary.

    I swear the first i.e. was accidental.

    • You bring up an interesting point.

      First, regarding the description of the room. I’m not sure stating the obvious is a good idea. “In the dark room are sacks, barrels, and boxes, situated just perfectly that it would be easy for someone to hide behind them where you can’t see them.” Rather, “In the room are sacks, barrels and boxes, and you notice they aren’t actually up against the wall.” Let the players draw their own conclusion.

      But the point you bring up is this: Scaled DCs. The players roll perception or history checks and the information you provide to them is scaled based upon the result. For example (again, from last night), the players are looking at a riddle in the form of a poem (it’s actually a published song called Drink Down the Moon). I had the players make a history check and add their proficiency bonus, if applicable. The base DC was 15, but additional knowledge was available for higher rolls.

      Two players rolled natural 20, one got a 16. So I took each player aside, and based upon each individual character backstory, I relayed what the song meant to them. The two who got 20 got more information than the one who rolled 16.

      This idea could work for perception as well. Walk into a room full of people, say a banquet hall. Everyone roll their perception and add appropriate bonuses:

      DC 5: At the head of the table is the Lord of the castle.

      DC 10: (above,) and he’s being entertained by a beautiful young female bard. He is so enthralled by her that he isn’t paying attention to anything else going on in the room.

      DC 15: (above, plus) you see that there are a dozen guards standing in the balconies. All but one of them are at attention, but of them has his bow drawn.

      DC 20: (above, plus), You noticed the guard with his bow out that his uniform doesn’t fit quite right, and it seems he’s aiming his bow right at the Lord.

      DC 25: (above, plus), you also see that there is some sort of fluid dripping from the tip of his arrow.

      In a situation like this, telling people the DC isn’t going to make a difference. Their level of success tells you, the GM, how much information to depart.

      • Yeah, what I’m going for with the description of the room is using it as a springboard for choices. Do you want to take the possible resource hit of something unhappy to see you (or guaranteed one of time) for the possible reward of info/items? The more info at higher DCs is just literally degrees of success or whatever your main system calls it so there’s discussion about the upsides and downsides to be had. I’m pretty comfortable with the idea, but it rarely ends up that clean in practice with time pressures.

      • Stating the “obvious” is necessary, because the players aren’t seeing the same things you’re seeing. “There are sacks in this room” does not to me imply that they look like you could hide behind them. What kind of sacks? Are the sacks filled? How big are they? How many are there? etc etc

        The solution to this problem isn’t to lay on more and more prose to “paint a picture” or whatever. It’s to just not bury the lede, and tell the players what’s in the room and why they care.

        Your players might even surprise you with their ingenuity once you move past “Decipher wtf the GM is telling us” as a primary puzzle.

        • I actually got a chance to Ask Angry in person, and I asked about burying the lede because I have a player complain about it regularly.

          In summary, the minute the DM says “ogre” the players stop listening. There could be important information about the room, but the players don’t hear it because they start reaching for a die to roll initiative, looking at their spell lists, and pushing minis out onto the battle mat.

          What if the ogre is unarmed, sitting at a table and eating soup? What if he’s facing away from the door, looking at something on a desk? What if he’s a she and there are two ogrets behind her? Not only is it important for the players to have that information, it’s information their brains would have automatically gathered, but the players’ Pavlovian response to the name of a monster kicks in and now we’re rolling for initiative, dammit.

          • Right. Angry talked about that in his narration article. Maybe “burying the lede” wasn’t the best phrasing, but the point is that you don’t solve the issue of players not listening once they hear something to act on by saying “a large, muscular, green humanoid” and hope that the players are “creative” enough to understand what you mean.

  7. In the 5th edition campaign I’ve been lucky enough to play, we use the Gritty Realism rules for healing… Makes survival that much more pressing. And deciding to go to town becomes a far more important descision. I play with two people for whome I run an old Rules Cyclopedia campaign as well, and oh boy when you go old school and lose that pool of healing dice, your really feel the fragility of PC life. Sure your clerics will bust off 3-4 heal spells of various power every day, but in a party of 6 adventurers it’s not quite enough, especially when that cleric becomes a Druid and wants to do other cool things with their power. And I find they think hard about every single fight, because when a scared and confused Cloud Giant smashes one of em for 30 or so damage, they know they will be feeling it the next day, and possibly for days (in the old rules, PCs heal ONE Hp + Con bonus per full day spent doing nothing but resting, so even if only one angry beast comes around and forces a flee or a fight, no one will be healing naturally that day, it’s wonderfully brutal). In the end I’ve found the party will stop every 6-7 days for a day or two of full rest, and THATS the day when the cleric will blow all their spell slots on healing.

  8. I don’t tell my players AC or DC, though I will usually try to give them a pretty good idea with descriptive language about how hard it will be. I don’t do it to keep information from the players, I do it for my own sake. I find that when my players know (or think they know) the AC of a creature, they stop telling me what they rolled and just declare “I hit it” or “Damn, I missed” which I’ve found annoys the shit out of me. Maybe I’m being petty, but I’m the DM and I want to be the arbiter of whether an attack hits or misses, even if the answer is obvious. Plus (rarely) the creature might have access to some ability that changes their AC, such as a parry or the shield spell. In my game, I usually don’t let players or NPC’s waste combat resources out of ignorance, so if the +5 AC from the shield spell won’t help, I tell the players that before they use it (if they cast a fireball at the fire elemental though, then f&%$ ’em, they should know better). Which is a (tiny) part of why I want the players to tell me what they rolled instead of telling me that they hit it.

  9. Scott, only read the first few paragraphs and I have to say… Thank you. You give a lot to your readers and I hope you know how much I appreciate it. That’s a rotten situation to be in, and I love that you’re working with your sweetheart to make things work for everyone, especially the two of you. Holy crud, when you guys get married, you might end up with a crowd-funded and Con-sized wedding! Couldn’t be much happier for you!!!

  10. At low levels: “The lock is ornate, but such finery often comes at the expense of security. Your character isn’t sure whether the lock is DC. 5 or DC 15.”

  11. I’m also writing a survival- and exploration heavy campaign for 3 players at the moment. There are a few core things I’m planning on doing:

    As Angry said, survival is about resource management. Play around with that;

    – For example, there’s only 1 town in the wilderness. A settlement with limited resources and limited supplies. Deliveries take 2 – 3 weeks, and even then, it’s not much.
    (it’s also a great way to make your PC’s care about the people in the world; the town is the only place where they can get risk-free goods. Well, and you need interesting NPC’s.)

    – Another example: Bears. Bears attack their camp at night, roll for how stealthy they are. If the bears aren’t spotted, they ransack the place and steal the food. If they are spotted, good on the PC’s, they’ll probably defeat the bears, but that much needed long rest becomes a short rest because they had to fight a bunch of bears in the middle of the night.
    There are a lot of variaties to this scenario, and you can scale it up as they level up if you want, or drop it after a while.
    Sure, they might start preparing for nightly attacks, but that takes more time, so they’ll cover less distance in a day.

    – Your wilderness is a Wilderness. Give the Wild an identity, get a feel for it. As DM you are the NPC’s in the world, and the Wilderness is your protagonist.
    Is the Wild bent on forcing out intruders? Is it angry because it has been corrupted by something? Is it confused and ripe with random magic? Is it sad because it is slowly dying?
    Think about the identity of your Wilderness and create mechanics (and creatures and NPC’s) to emulate that identity.
    (mechanics, which will also serve to drain your PC’s resources.)

    – Speaking of NPC’s: random NPC’s; the lonely hermit wandering the wild, a Dryad protecting a tree, etc etc. NPC’s they can talk with. You want to keep your sessions fresh, and that involves switching between combat, exploration/travel and interaction with others.
    Or you could do several tribes as Angry suggests to make sure there’s enough change of pace.

    – Speaking of combat: make it count. There should be no easy combats. The Wild is dangerous and, if at any point, one of the PC’s says: “well, we only have to kill a few wolves to get to the food.”, you have a problem. Combat should serve the exploration of your campaign and be part of the survival decisions your players make. That can only work if your combat involves enough risk.
    Also, homebrew monsters are your best friends in this scenario. Go to town. Or don’t. Even something simple as tweaking basic creatures to create different kinds that have adapted to their respective surroundings can be fun.

    – Now, one of the most important things in my opinion: make a map. I don’t know if you’re planning on 1 area or keeping your PC’s moving from new place to new place. My campaign will take place in 1 area so they can really get a feel of it and get involved. If you’re planning on doing the same: make a map.
    I think Angry mentioned it in one of his previous AskAngry articles. If you want to make the wilderness work, make sure you have it all worked out. A map is a great way to keep track of it all.
    Seriously, you cannot have enough detail on that map. Work it out in advance, all of it (or at least 90% so you leave a bit of wiggle room for a mcguffin’ if your campaign needs one).
    If they cross a river, that river better be there on the way back. If they fell a tree to cross that river, that tree also better be there. If they find a magic rock, that rock has to remain in the same spot. If they clear a cave, that cave has to be empty the next time they pass it, or be populated by new creatures. (at this point, you can just go and read the Megadungeon series and treat your Wilderness like a dungeon, you get the point.)
    You can also use it to mark things like hunting grounds, game trails, etc etc. I’m not saying you should work out an entire ecosystem (although you could), but do assign some high-danger and low-danger zones, and some high-resource and low-resource areas and make sure you know why those areas are what they are. After a while the players will know what they are, further empowering them to make decisions.
    And you need that, because, in a game where exploration is key, you cannot possibly predict what the PC’s are going to do and how they will interact with your world. And you need to know every little bit of how your world works if you want to know how the world will react back to your PC’s. Show the PC’s they have an impact on the world, and you can only do that if you have your world all figured out in advance.
    So, if you contain your PC’s to 1 area, work it all out and don’t make it too big. If you keep your PC’s moving from place to place, and they will never visit the same spot twice, well, you can probably improvise a bit more as the campaign goes along…

    • Your wilderness is the antagonist. The party are the protagonists. Additionally you can run a survival game without messing with core mechanics no problem at least in 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and 5th Edition. You just need to learn to use the tools you have effectively. Things that have been mentioned by Angry as well as by jetlaw.

      Also without some goal beyond survival you have no motivation for your characters to explore or interact with the world at large. Difficultly should scale by objective and by region rather than arbitrarily making every fight brutal. Eventually wolves will not threaten the PC’s. Once that is true the PC’s should be exploring new areas due to advancing toward new objectives and encounter shadow mastiffs or winter wolves or what have you.

  12. My group rolls about 30 d20s at the start of every few sessions and writes them on a sheet I have tacked to my screen, along with their search/spot/listen/saves. I use these as needed for hidden checks and cross them out as I go. This also hides the rattle of dice hitting the table that could alert them to something. Like Angry, I too get a certain glee as I watch that “1” get closer and closer on the list, wondering what horrible fate will befall the PC without them knowing… 🙂

    Was in your GenCon “7 words” seminar… always good to get a refresher on what not to be doing as a DM. Thanks much.

    • I’d thought about doing something similar with this and your post has pushed me to it. I don’t think I’ll take the rolls away from my players (they like rolling dice way too much for that), but having 10+ rolls (or more depending on my monsters) already lined up on my sheet next to the monsters stat blocks would do well to speed things along.

      • I don’t know… I don’t think I can get on board with this idea. To me, knowing what rolls are coming up for each character is a form of meta-gaming and/or railroading. The whole point of using dice is because dice don’t remember what was rolled previously, and each time you pick it up, shake it, and drop it on the table the chance of any value coming up is (generally) the same, no matter what.

        Seeing a list of pre-rolled numbers is a temptation that I don’t need. “Okay, his ‘1’ is three rolls away, so I want that ‘1’ to occur at the right time to further the story. To that end, I’m going to make sure I use those intervening rolls on things that don’t matter so much.”

        I think I mentioned elsewhere, this is what things like “Passive Perception” are for. Theoretically, you could do the same with most of the skills in 5e. If someone in the party has a “passive history” of 15, say, it means you don’t need anyone to roll a history check to see if they know that the castle on the mountain was once owned by a great wizard named Ned. If someone has a “passive nature” of 13, there’s no need to roll to see if the character knows the difference between poison ivy and English ivy. And so on.

        Yes, players like to roll the dice, but as I’ve seen multiple times in Angry’s articles, rolling dice separates the player from the immersion, especially when rolling the die ultimately serves no purpose.

        • I agree with the “seeing ahead” thing, but that’s why I’d only pre-roll for my own combatants, not my players. And as I’m not a GM who is “playing to win”–so to say–the pre-rolled numbers have already given me a way of making things a little bit more cinematically better. I only pre-roll for attacks. If it’s something like a save, then I’ll go ahead and re-roll.

          As far as passive goes, you’re right. I only have my players roll for perception if they are ACTIVELY looking for something. They used to get scared when i’d ask what their passive perception was, as though it something was coming their way (it often did). So, now I just have all their passive perceptions written at the top of my initiative page at the beginning of a session. quick and out of the way.

          It takes a lot less time if a player rolls all their dice at once. EX: if their attack uses 2d6, they should rolls a d20 and 2d6. If the attack hits, the d6s were already rolled. The only downside to this is when an attack doesn’t hit and you can see that your damage would’ve been 11 or something.

  13. Climbing in 5e doesn’t require checks unless it is sheer or slippery surface, or someone is trying to knock you off. It’s best not to use it as an example in discussions about DCs. Especially since it leaves you open to assholes like me pointing out you’re calling for unnecessary checks at ludicrously high DCs. 😉

    Also 5e has a built in system to communicate difficulty very precisely while hiding the metagame feeling. Very easy, Easy, medium, hard, very hard, nearly impossible. Obviously that’s just a trick … You’re still communicating metagame information. But people respond to it differently from being told its DC # to complete a task. They seem to find it yanks them out of the in-game scene into numbers less, while still giving them all the info they need to make an informed decision.

    • If you admit to being an asshole but continue to be an asshole, then you’re the problem. And being a cheeky willing asshole is still being an asshole. If the best you can do is argue with the example instead of the ideas, you probably don’t have anything worth saying. The example was chosen because it was easy for everyone to grok. Sometimes, clear communication is more important than assholish pedantry.

      And using one mechanical language instead of another changes nothing I said. It’s still the language of the game. And 5E isn’t the only game that exists.

  14. The idea that people hide DC’s from their players is alien to me. It’s such an intuitive part of the game. “Make a “X” climbing check” or “You need a “Y” to hit” is an inseparable part of the experience for me. Making perception rolls in secret makes more sense to me, though it’s something I’ve only done using online tools so that the players don’t even know I’ve rolled. I use those kinds of rolls a lot online, though I couldn’t tell you why, because metagaming isn’t the reason.

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