It’s been a long time since I answered any of the questions people have been asking me. That’s right, it’s time for another Ask Angry blitz. If you want to Ask Angry, here’s how to do it.
Meanwhile, I’ve been considering how to bring this Ask Angry thing back regularly. And I’m curious whether people have even missed it. So, let me know in the comments what you think of these Ask Angry articles? Do you want to see them as a regular thing or not? Do you like to get three or four questions in one go or would you prefer short answers now and then? Do you hate them? What do you think? Yes, I am actually asking for feedback in the comments. Let me know what you think.
Big Lew asks:
When I am running an adventure, my sense of immersion often breaks when things feel fabricated or scripted. I often see this in [published] adventures. Having such a linear formula makes me feel like I am robbing my player’s agency. I am searching for something that feels less scripted, more alive, something that doesn’t restrict my player’s choices or effectively forces my player’s through plot points. I want something that doesn’t threaten to crack my own fragile suspension of disbelief. The only thing I can think of that would be sufficient is to run a “plate of spaghetti” campaign but that isn’t feasible for me due to inexperience and time constraints. Are there any alternatives?
First, El Lew Grande, let me say this: when you’re running an adventure, your sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief don’t matter one single solitary f$&%. If your players don’t feel pushed along or robbed of their agency, it isn’t a problem. The thing is, because you’re behind the curtain, you can see the rails. What you’re doing is complaining that being a stage magician is no fun because you know how all the tricks are done. Guess what? It sucks to be the Wizard of Oz. If your PLAYERS are feeling like they are trapped on a midnight train to plot point, then you actually have a problem worth dealing with. Otherwise, suck it up. Or take up a different hobby.
Now, here’s the deal, loss of agency doesn’t actually come from a linear plot. I mean, if you break any adventure down enough, it’s going to have to plot points you have to usher through. If there’s a villain, the villain has to be beaten. Everything is about getting to that point. If an adventure has a mystery, the players have to follow the breadcrumb trail of clues. That’s how it is. Even “plate of spaghetti” campaigns have plot points that the players have to reach. They are called goals. And without goals, the players just sit in taverns rolling to see if they are getting drunk and trying to sex the bar wenches and bar bawds.
Players feel like they’ve lost agency when they feel like their choices don’t matter. And that doesn’t have anything to do with picking your path through the plot. It can, sure, but that’s just one form of agency. A more important form of agency is a feeling that past decisions have consequences. The reason why published adventures don’t have much of that sense of agency is because it’s a very reactive type of agency. That is, when the players take some sort of action, the GM has to be willing to change the rest of the adventure to reflect the choice of that action over another action. Take a simple example like choosing to bully someone for information rather than persuade them. In most published adventures, the choice between bullying and persuading only impacts what skills are used to resolve the outcome. But a good, reactive GM might allow persuasive PCs to make a friend. Maybe later, the friendly NPC sends them a warning at a critical moment. Or, the bullied NPC might be resentful and send some thugs to beat up the PCs. Published adventures try not to put too much pressure on GMs by not making them keep track of that sort of crap.
If you don’t have the wherewithal to run your own campaign and write your own adventures – and it IS possible to insert your own adventure into an established campaign without having to run an entire goddamned full-length epic and you totally SHOULD give it a try – if you can’t write your own adventures AND your players – NOT YOU – really do feel railroaded by your adventure choices, start making some changes on the fly. If the players leave someone alive, bring that NPC back later, even if the adventure doesn’t call for it. If the players treat an NPC well, have them return later in the adventure. If the players circumvent a trap without disabling it, maybe later a monster or NPC in that area shows signs of having set off the trap. And if you can’t find any opportunities to change the adventure, add your own encounters. Add an NPC who can become a recurring ally or rival, for example.
Truth is, it really doesn’t take much to make the players believe they have an impact on the game. They are inclined to believe that already. And because they can’t see anything except the one path they take through the game, they generally assume they could have done things differently.
But, again, make sure the problem really isn’t just the fact that you’re standing behind the smoke and mirrors.
I’ve always been underwhelmed by conversation in games like D&D, because compared to combat, it feels one sided. In conversation there’s no rules which allow NPCs to manipulate players the way players can manipulate NPCs. Players use conversation skills (Intimidate, Persuade, etc) on NPCs but seemingly never have to worry about NPCs using those same actions against them. Why the fuck not? What are your thoughts about this?
Oh, boo f$&%ing hoo! Are the players lying circles around your poor NPCs and your precious characters can’t seem to convince them that water is wet or the sky is blue? Welcome to GMing. GMing is about learning to lose the game week after week and cheer for the winners. It’s about getting sacked time after time and saying, “thank you sirs, may I have another.”
Okay, look, I’ve talked about social interaction in role-playing games before. I’ve even proposed an open-ended but still mechanical system for handling it. And even that doesn’t address all of the problems with social interaction in D&D. Social interaction scenes SUCK in D&D. D&D is basically built like s$&% when it comes to social interaction. Pillar of the game my giant, hairy a$& Mearls!
But the problem ISN’T that you and your beloved NPCs don’t get to roll dice to make the players think whatever you want them to think. There’s a damned good reason why you don’t use social interaction skills against PCs. And that’s because the players – not the dice – control their characters’ brains. Which is exactly how it should be. You wouldn’t wrest control from the players during combat and say, “your character isn’t smart enough to figure out that strategy, you just attack with your sword instead, here, I’ll roll it for you.” And if you did, you’d be a major a$&hole.
Social interaction skills aren’t really about social interaction. They are more like social lockpicks. They are ways to overcome obstacles. When the players pick the lock on a door, the door doesn’t try to break the lockpicks. It either resists or it doesn’t. And they either get through the door or they don’t. Social interaction skills determine the likelihood that the players can change the brains of the NPCs in the world. Pure and simple.
When a social interaction encounter starts, there MUST be a reason why the NPC doesn’t want to help the PCs. Otherwise, that’s not an encounter. It’s just a friendly chat where the NPC gives them the information or help or whatever and then offers them tea and crumpets. In order to get what they want, the players have to do two things. First, they have to figure out the right things to say. That’s the role-playing part. Second, they have to overcome the NPCs resistance by rolling successful checks. That part comes after you listen to what they say, decide it might actually work, and then ask them to make the appropriate roll.
Your job in the scene is twofold. First, you design the NPC so that you know what the NPC wants, what it fears, and what it can and can’t offer. That helps you decide whether the PCs are actually saying the right things. It’s like designing a very complicated door. Second, your job is to act as the NPC. You have to formulate responses to the PCs based BOTH on what they choose to say and do AND whether those things are successful or not. And you also have to either provide clues so the PCs can figure out how to interact successfully or lay false trails and red herrings to lead the PCs to useless actions. That’s how you adjust the challenge of the scene and respond to their actions. And the PCs have an Insight skill as a sort of failsafe against some of that crap in much the same way they have a Perception check that they can use to see a trap before it kills them. Third, you have to design when the scene is over and the PCs have failed. This is a job lots of GMs forget. The fact is, the players WILL keep at a failed scene forever if you let them. You have to tell them in no uncertain terms when the scene is failed and narrate them the hell out of the scene.
You might think that that is the perfect place for the NPC to wear down the PC’s social hit points with social skills. But it isn’t. That would suck. Because, unlike a combat, social interactions GENERALLY don’t have consequences or risks and don’t expend resources. So, after the PCs lose all their social HP, they could just come back after they have a drink or meditate or whatever and try it all over again. And that gets boring as f$&%.
Now, D&D could DEFINITELY use a mechanic like “Patience” wherein an NPC eventually gets tired of having social interaction thrown at him to no avail to signal to the GM when to end the scene, but that would be a backend mechanic. Not a player-facing mechanic. And the GM would have to be careful to still assess every social action based on what the players are saying and doing and not boil the scene down into rolling X successes before Y failures. But any attempt at such a mechanic went away with 4th Edition because Wizards of the Coast loves throwing out perfectly serviceable bathtubs with useless babies. Or whatever.
Meanwhile, if you want to manipulate your players socially, you’re going to have to get better at doing it the hard way. No matter how much you want to, you are NOT allowed to tell your players how their characters MUST act and what they MUST believe.
Do the Wolf and Kobold challenge ratings ignore Pack Tactics? If so, why? I stumbled upon your monster building courses and found them immensely useful. I decided to reverse engineer some monster challenge ratings to make sure I had the process down before moving ahead and building my own monsters. I did pretty well with most, but when I tried to measure Wolves and then later Kobolds I was confounded.
Yes. Probably. I mean, I didn’t check. But I looked over the paragraphs of math and explanation you HELPFULLY included which I have chosen to spare my readers and you seem to have it right. And, betting between you and the designers at WotC, I’ll pick you any day. And I don’t even know who you are.
There are lots of monsters who CRs are probably off by at least a little bit. I know of a few. In fact, I think I did also personally identify the kobold as one of them once upon a time. But who can keep track of this crap?
Here’s the deal. As much as you and I would LOVE to believe that CR stuff is some sort of scientific process carefully determined by the designers at WotC, the truth is that it’s a big ole pack of lies. What WotC SEEMS to have done with 5E is the same thing they did with 3E. That is, they didn’t design the monster numbers and the PC numbers at the same time. Instead, they figured out what sort of range of numbers PCs should have based on “reasons.” And then, they designed monsters in the proper ballparks. Then, they had a whole bunch of playtesters in one of their big closed beta tests run encounters against all sorts of monsters to pinpoint the CRs. I participated in both the open and closed beta playtests of D&D 5E, so I know some of what went on. I’m guessing at the rest. The reason I compare this to 3rd Edition is because of the genericon story from the 3E design days that I referenced in this article which also answers this question in much more detail.
Later on, the designers of 5E had to develop a system for designing monsters because they needed crap to fill the DMG and didn’t know what to put in there and lots of GMs were asking how to make monsters. Now, at that point, I’m sure WotC had refined the process well enough to have some very strong benchmarks they had distilled from the playtests as well as from seeing the broader results once the game was in the wild. So, those benchmarks provided a starting point. But they also had to figure out how to help GMs assess the impact of special abilities and traits. So, they compiled the special abilities and traits they considered most iconic from the Monster Manual and figured out, roughly, how those should affect the numbers.
So, the Monster Manual CRs were set by rigorous playtesting. The DMG CR rules were set by trying to come up with a set of general rules that followed from that playtesting. And they just aren’t going to align.
Now, it’s funny that you bring up Pack Tactics because it trips over the basic design philosophy of 5E. 5E’s encounter design math harkens back to the 3E encounter design math in that it assumes the baseline encounter is ONE monster per PARTY. It then explains how to adjust CRs if you want to have groups of monsters. But that means the basic CR on a monster is the CR of that monster IN ISOLATION. And Pack Tactics is unique in that it has absolutely ZERO impact if the monster is alone. The monster needs at least one ally to even have a chance at using Pack Tactics. I suspect somewhere along the line, that gummed up the math. How do you set the CR on an ability whose impact drastically increases with the number of allies one has? Because Pack Tactics becomes more impactful the more monsters there are. With just one, it’s useless. With two, it’s only useful if both monsters can focus their attention on one target. With four, there’s more ways to use it. And if the monsters outnumber the party, it’ll impact multiple attacks against multiple party members every round. And, of course, it becomes less impactful as the monsters’ numbers diminish.
Honestly, I think the value they came up with it for monster building – effectively a +1 to attack – is reasonable. But it does push SOME monsters whose attack bonus is already 1 point over the expected attack bonus for their CR into a whole other CR category unfairly. And that’s what would happen with the wolf and kobold if you reverse engineered it.