A Trifecta of BS

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Every month, I let myself just go totally wild and write an article that amounts to just spewing a bunch of random thoughts about a particular topic into a Word document. Then, I let Grammarly make sure that it at least approaches a level of readability you’d associate with a 2nd-grade paper entitled What I Did on My Summer Vacation if said paper was written by a child whose parents dragged them to a gaming convention and they thought it was the best thing ever. And then I post it. Why? Because, no matter how much I try to elevate myself by writing actual mechanics and publishing books and even landing gigs as an “Additional Designer,” whatever the hell that means, I’m still just a freaking blogger. Sorry to disappoint.

Now, things got backed up a little this week – and this month – due to multiple trips to clinics, a hospital, a medical lab. And backups like that almost always coincide with my releasing my BS article for the month. That’s just a total coincidence, though. It has nothing to do with me trying to get something to print before the deadline. After all, my deadlines are completely imaginary, fluid, and self-imposed. That said, while I’m in the process of finishing up the final revision for an ACTUAL, GOOD article about trying to disentangle the money and magic item system in D&D for the purposes of not breaking the game when I come up with my own magic item crafting system – an article I will likely post as early as tomorrow at this point considering it’s just about the end of the month and I did promise four articles a month – well, I found myself with a lot of stray thoughts swirling around in my head about games, GMs, and players.

See, except for the last few days, which have been a crazy runaround, this has been a month for conversation. I’ve ended up talking to a lot of gamers about a lot of things. It’s kind of ironic because a lot of my actual gaming stuff has been on hold while I try to deal with the latest series of health problems and Kickstarter delivery issues and all that crap. And a lot of topics have come up. And while I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on hold waiting to start my next bout with the insurance company or the post office or the tax department or while I’ve spent hours in the car driving out of town to visit doctors and labs in distant, mysterious places like Sheboygan and Ashwaubenon – those are real Wisconsin places – or while I’ve just been sitting quietly in waiting rooms waiting, a lot has been swirling through my mind. And everything is starting to mush together.

Let me explain what I mean. The other night, I found myself having an odd conversation with a couple of friends about older editions of D&D and how they approached the topic of game balance. Which was kind of weird because last week, I ended up in two different arguments about game balance. And as I finished the draft of my article about money and magic items in D&D which started with trying to pinpoint a precise level of balance in the system and ended with the conclusion “eh, screw it. It isn’t that important,” I very nearly launched into a diatribe about game balance. It just keeps coming up. Game balance, I mean. And a very particular notion about game balance.

Meanwhile, I also posted an article last week about certain pesky player behaviors that I and other GMs ended up pissing and moaning several times this month. Which is funny because I later ended up in two different conversations about how modern character generation systems screw with player expectations and, consequently, to sabotage a very important element of role-playing games. And then I ended up whining to some other friends that I would love to take a bunch of kids that were raised on 5E and throw them into an old school game with old school character to show them precisely what it is that bothers me about character generation these days. Especially the players who argue with me that I’m wrong and that it’s better the modern way. It just keeps coming up. The misplaced focus on the wrong aspects of role-playing due to changes in the way characters are generated. Yes, that’s a very specific complaint.

The thing is that, if I really wanted to, I could draw a big circle around absolutely everything that’s come up this month and point to a bigger, broader issue in gaming culture. And when I say that, please note I don’t mean gaming culture the way shrieking morons on Twitter scream about gamer culture. You know, utterly useless, hyperbolic, and completely false bullshit like toxicity and inclusion and shit. The stuff I left Twitter to get away from and which, incidentally, will not take hold in my comment section so be warned. I mean gaming culture in terms of what people expect from role-playing games and how people engage with those games.

But, frankly, I’m not sure if I want to do that. At least not publicly. Not out loud. Not yet. But I do have to think about it. Even though the Kickstarter is still having a few last problems and isn’t quite finished and I’m still working on the module that ties into it and I said I wasn’t going to prioritize anything else until that crap was all really done, the fact is that I AM working on a role-playing game system of my own. One for which, as some of you know, I have pretty big, bold plans. And I’m actually working on it seriously enough now that I’ve already started hiring a few contractors to help me test some specific elements and have even gotten some non-disclosure agreements on file. So, I have to think about this crap. And, honestly, that’s why I’m still a blogger at heart. Because, in the end, I find the best way to think is to talk. Or type. And part of why I spend so much time on this site explaining what I’m doing and why it’s because I’m actually working it out while I do it. Or at least paying enough attention to working it out that I can remember what I worked out and explain it later.

So, that’s why BS articles still happen. As for this particular article? Well, I don’t want to get into that “bigger issue” yet. The one that ties things together. But I do want to clear my mental plate a bit and share some of the crap I’ve been working through, alone and with other people. So, I’m going to hit a couple of different topics below. And although there IS a connection between them, I am not going to draw that connection or talk about the bigger issue. In the past, whenever I’ve laid out issues like this, it’s sparked some of the most interesting and spirited discussions in my comment section. And whenever I apologize for putting out crap like this, people reassure me that they find it interesting. So, here’s a BS article made up of a couple of smaller BS articles that will probably lead to a bigger BS article down the line. And I’m not sorry. But if you hate it, well, we’ll be doing more magic item stuff in a day or two.

Balance is an Overrated Joke

Let me start by throwing out a controversial truth: GMs overvalue game balance and they expect too much from it. Admittedly, my evidence for that is mostly anecdotal and observational. But there’s a hell of a lot of it. See, when I say I have anecdotal and observational evidence for something, I don’t say that lightly. It’s not like I just talked to a few buddies down at the local game shop. I end up talking to a lot of people via a lot of different channels for a lot of different reasons. And they run the experience gamut from the completely new to the elderly grognard to the actual gaming professional. Yes, many of them are my readers, but I’m also quietly a part of a number of different communities. And when I say quietly, I mean I am not always The Angry GM in every venue I participate in. And I tend to lurk a lot in a lot of places. I CAN be subtle.

But, honestly, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone but myself. This is just me thinking. And observing. I’m just letting you read it. So, if you want to dismiss what I’m saying as the scattered rantings of a diseased mind, well, that’s your problem. Not mine.

Anyway, game balance. And here, I just want to focus specifically on the idea of balanced encounters. That is to say that the system provides a set of rules such that the GM can craft an appropriately beatable challenge for a group of any number of PCs of any level and be reasonably assured that the heroes will win the day unless they are complete idiots. And that comes down to all that crap you find in the DMG about how to build appropriate encounters for your party that are either easy or medium or hard or deadly and how many of those fit into an encounter day and so on and so forth.

Now, I know GMs overvalue game balance because I watch GMs every day arguing over the difference between this bonus and that bonus and whether an ability, they are designing is too powerful or too weak or whatever. Often, these arguments have a level of precision in them that is frankly ridiculous. For example, arguing over whether a +2 or +3 or +4 is the right bonus and which is too powerful or not powerful enough for a given ability. In an article I wrote recently about telegraphing what your monsters were about to do, I suggested a mechanic that would prevent a monster from using its most powerful abilities in the first round of the fight. The mechanic was to allow for something game designers put into literally every video game because it vastly improves the player experience across the board: telegraphing. And D&D does not allow for any telegraphing as written. Well, someone jumped into the comments to point out that I was wrecking the game balance because the CR of every monster was computed based on the idea that monsters would always use their most powerful abilities the moment they were available.

Now, that’s incorrect. CRs are calculated, according to the DMG, based on an average output over three rounds. So, if the monster can use its most powerful ability only once every three rounds, it doesn’t matter which of the three rounds it uses that ability in. Numerically. But it’s also incorrect because it assumes the CR calculation is so precise and accurate that such a tiny thing as switching the order of attacks is going to affect the outcome of the fight so drastically? And that’s pants-on-head retarded. Sorry.

Combat in a role-playing game is a very, very complex system with a huge, HUGE number of variables. There’s a lot of randomness in combat and a lot of swing. Especially in D&D where the dice rolls are based on linear probability curves instead of normal distributions. But there’s also a huge number of different combinations of classes, races, weapons, abilities, spells, feats, and so on, some of which work well together and others don’t, and many of which are basically incomparable. There’s just so no solid mathematical way to compare the ability to, say, push a monster three squares to the ability to grant a +2 bonus to attack to three adjacent allies. And that’s not even considering how those abilities might combine with the other abilities and the other choices of other characters and monsters. On top of that, many of the incomparable options are situational. And they rely on the players or the GM to be clever enough to use them at the right time. And to position themselves the right way. And to predict what the other actors in combat are going to do so as to set up those situations in the first place. In short, there’s a level of strategic and tactical skill involved in playing combats out in D&D. And when you’ve got four players and GM who may all have different skill levels, that’s going to swing things.

Of course, no encounter happens in a vacuum. The encounters stack up in an adventuring day, right? And resources are expended throughout the day. So, all else being equal if the party faces two identical encounters, but one comes at the beginning of the day and one comes at the end, the party is going to have some very different experiences. But the game says those encounters are equal.

So, don’t fool yourself: the encounter balance stuff? It’s a guess. It’s an educated guess, but it’s not a precise guess by any stretch. And precisely because the game designers know it’s just a loose guess, they were smart enough to err on the side of making things too easy. So, if the guess is off, it tends to be off in favor of the players. Which is fine and dandy. I’m not complaining about that. In fact, that’s probably a good thing. Well, maybe it is. I’ll come back to that.

Here’s the problem: GMs assume that the game balance is both accurate and precise. That is, it will always give the right answer for every party and that any deviation from the answer it gives will lead to an utter disaster. And you can see this in all sorts of GM behavior. For example, I’ve seen lots of GMs complain that battles in their games are too easy or too hard for their players. And I always suggest starting with the same solution: adjust the difficulty. If the encounters are too easy, scale them up from normal to hard and from hard to deadly. That may not fix the problem every time, but it’s a good first thing to try. And wow, does that ever scare the motherloving crap out of GMs. The idea of building encounters purposely too hard or too easy is just crazy to some people. And, of course, this also leads to the GMs who are baffled by the fact that the CRs in the D&D Monster Manual don’t line up with what they should be if the monster was made and graded based on the DMG’s rules. Well, that’s because the ones in the Monster Manual were set – or at least tweaked – with playtesting. The stuff in the DMG about how to make custom monsters is actually a best guess at what a systematic approach WOULD look like if such a thing were possible. And no matter what Crawford and Perkins say now about secret master spreadsheets and how those monsters were designed, I can promise you they are AT LEAST half lying. I know. I was part of a playtest group that helped set those damned CRs.

But here’s the larger thing: the monster building and encounter balancing crap? That’s just a microcosm for the game as a whole. The balance between the classes just isn’t that precise. Again, there’s too many moving pieces and too many incomparables and the game is too damned open-ended. People speak of which ability scores are more powerful than others based on how many things they modify in the game and they speak with authority. Dexterity is more powerful than Strength. Constitution is the weakest of all. But the fact is, it ain’t that cut and dry. It never is. And anyone who speaks authoritatively on it and claims to know, well, they think they know better than the game’s designers. Because they – the designers – only speak of balance in the loosest sense. And ultimately, they resolve their balance issues with gut instinct, artistic flair, and testing. Lots of testing. It’s a big, vague, wibbly, wobbly thing. And if you think you can think through game balance, you’re wrong.

Besides, professional game designers know that game balance is actually not super important beyond getting everything into the proper ballpark. There’s a value in having all the balance feel a little off. Because that’s the place where players experiment and discover. That’s where people get to talk about all the best builds and worst builds and optimum spells and stuff. And even if you don’t like that crap, lots and lots of players do.

Moreover, that’s where excitement happens. Where, after all, is the excitement players win a fight they were ninety percent likely to win? There isn’t any. Players are bored by cakewalks. Danger is engaging. And if the outcome is predetermined, well, in what sense are the players even affecting the outcome? Yeah, noodle that paradox. Maybe it’s good that balance is vague and wobbly. Well, not just maybe. It is definitely good that balance is vague and wobbly. Otherwise, there’s no point in playing the game. And there’s no value in experimenting and trying new things. And there’s nothing that nudges the outcome. A game that can be played effectively by a random number generator doesn’t need players. And that’s what a game that is perfectly balanced amounts to.

The problem is that GMs don’t lean into the imbalance.

What Would Unbalanced D&D Look Like?

So, let’s say you do decide to just throw away all the balance crap. Or most of it. What if you don’t sweat building balanced encounters? What if you don’t worry about how many magic items or treasures the party finds? What if you just said, “to hell with it, I’m slapping a party of ghouls in this first level dungeon and the players will just have to cope with it?” Well, you’d have AD&D. Or AD&D 2E. Or Basic D&D. Or OD&D.

Okay, look, it wasn’t completely unbalanced. But it was way less concerned about balance than it is today. I know for a fact that in AD&D 2E and Basic D&D both, there was a section called “Balancing Encounters” in the rules for the GM. And do you know what? It was labeled “Optional.” You COULD balance an encounter based on hit dice and the levels of the party and the level of the dungeon the encounter was happening on. And there was a general sort of sorting principle about creatures only appearing on certain levels of the dungeon based on their Hit Dice. But it was more of a loose guideline. And we GMs often ignored it.

And what happened?

Well, the players didn’t assume they could beat anything. They picked their fights. They didn’t try to simply kill everything they encountered. They were willing to negotiate with some monsters, flee from others, and they snuck past others. And if they were hellbent on taking something out, they found a way to even the odds. They’d lure the monsters into an ambush, for example. Or set elaborate traps. Hell, I remember one party whose favorite tactic was to lure monsters from one area of the dungeon to fight monsters in other areas.

I often find myself reflecting on that when I have GMs complaining that the players just straight up murder everything. Or when they complain that the players always fight to the death. They never consider retreating. Well, what do you expect? They are playing a game which trains them to play as if they are meant to win every fight. And every fight yields experience points and treasure. So, of course, they are going to fight everything. And they pretty much win every time. It’s really funny. Combat is now such a huge part of the game compared to what it used to be. Everything is based on fighting. But despite that, the game is far less deadly than it ever was. And the game USED TO be a wargame with a few extra rules layered on top.

I can’t help but think back to the argument that raged over save-or-die effects in 5th Edition. This is when it was still called D&D Next and the playtest version of the beta game was still changing every other freaking week in drastic ways. Should there be save-or-die effects in the game? Well, obviously, the idea of being completely incapacitated by a single failed die roll isn’t a whole lot of fun. But a lot of people were also missing the point.

When you up against a medusa or a gorgon or a cockatrice back in the day, you weren’t really meant to just fight it outright. Perseus didn’t just roll initiative and start hacking at the gorgon, by which I mean, Medusa. Not a gorgon. You know. All of the great myths and legends and stories of old that supply the pedigree for D&D are chocked full of heroes who had to find clever ways to deal with foes that normal mortals couldn’t possibly deal with. The save-or-die wasn’t about just making the player roll dice every round to not die. They were there to say, “okay, you can try to fight this thing toe-to-toe, but you won’t win that way and it’ll be your own damned fault.”

Or maybe it was just me and the people I played with in junior and senior high school. Maybe we were special. I remember when my friend, Pete, decided the best way to deal with a gorgon – not a medusa, a D&D gorgon – was to jump on its back, grab it by the horns, and hack at it. Because the gorgon sure as hell couldn’t breathe its breath weapon if you were breaking that bronco. It was a great scene. Until he lost his grip. And got trampled to death. Win some, lose some. And I remember one party actually turned a medusa invisible so that they couldn’t see it. And then they shook out sacks of flour and fought it by watching it move through the flour. Of course, if I’d known then about flour mill explosions and the danger of open flames in particle clouds, well, the medusa would still be dead.

My gaming memories are full of stories like that. I’m not just cherry-picking examples to prove my point. That was just how things went. And, honestly, it still does go that way. Just not as often. Recently, I had a group of Pathfinder players facing skeletons. The party was, by some quirk of generation, entirely decked out with piercing weapons. And they were having a hard time. Finally, one dude threw down his weapon, wrestled with the skeleton, and used the grappling rules to deal natural attack damage to the skeleton. One piledriver later, the skeleton was done. Awesome.

By the way, that example goes back to my point above: the skeleton encounter was actually on the easy side of an average encounter for that party, but because of the quirk of their weapon choices – crossbows, bows, rapiers, twin short swords, etc. – the combat was actually much harder for them. And consequently, they had to resort to unconventional tactics to even the playing field.

Now, I’m not a gaming Luddite. I’m not suggesting a return to the old editions. They were a mechanical mess. But I am suggesting that an overreliance and overemphasis on balance actually does take something from the game. And since game balance is really only kind of a vague guess at best anyway, I can’t help but feel that maybe the designers need to own that fact a little better and that GMs need to embrace it. The way the game presents it, balance is absolute, accurate, and gospel. And GMs have come to believe that. And players have come to assume that. Even if they don’t do so consciously.

It’s Not Who You Are, But What You That Defines You

Recently, I found myself in several conversations about my growing discontent with modern D&D and Pathfinder. And finally, I was asked by one person who is less willing to take my crap than most to explain myself. Now, maybe I’m just a glum, depressed grognard who’s longing for the good old days, so take this for what it’s worth, but the discussion that spun out of that was, well, I don’t know what it was. But it gave me a lot to think about.

See, people love to tell me about their characters. I don’t know why. I don’t act remotely interested. Not even the slightest little bit. But a lot of what I hear these days about people’s characters tends to focus on one of two things: either all of the various options chosen during character generation – race, class, build, feats, background – or else on the character’s extensive backstory. And there seems to be a generational thing going on there. Actually, there’s a few very interesting demographic patterns but I’m not prepared to open that can of worms yet, so we’ll just stick with the generational thing. People who got started in 3E or Pathfinder tend to focus on the mechanical stuff. People who got started in 5E tend to focus on either that mechanical stuff or their backstory or both. And people who started earlier? They tend to focus more on war stories. Things that happened during the game. It was enough of a pattern that I asked other GMs I know about it. And they confirmed the general pattern, though we all admitted it’s only a general pattern and not an absolute.

The reason I bring that up is that in talking about character generation and the sheer volume of crap on the character sheet today as opposed to the bygone era, there was another pattern that seems to correlate with it. One of the features of 3E and Pathfinder character generation is that players with any level of experience – as in, knowledge of the game, not as in character level – experienced players tended to plan out their characters. They knew what feat they would take at every level and which skills to put how many ranks in and so on. Usually, it was because they had an ultimate goal in mind. A specific feat that had a lot of complicated prerequisites. Or a prestige class with some hefty requirements. And I would argue the system wanted you to do that. It encouraged that with all of the prerequisites on all the different options, with the prestige classes and feat progressions. And I’m not faulting that.

The point was that you had to build the character you wanted to play and then figure out the progression to get there.

Of course, the characters became a lot more heavily defined by their class abilities. Especially their combat abilities. Because 3E also marked the beginning of the vast piles of character abilities for every class. Oh, sure, prior to that spellcasters had spells, clerics could turn undead, and rogues had a handful of special skills that only they could use like climbing walls and stealth and picking locks. And a few classes that were particularly hard to qualify for had more extensive abilities. Like paladins, for example. Or bards. There were some specialized classes.

But none of that compared to the sheer number of codified options that every member of every race and ever class received just for their choice of race, class, and so on. Mechanical character differentiation increased exponentially in 3E. Every race and class and every character had several unique abilities and talents that were defined by specific rules and stuck on their character sheet.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing either. Character differentiation is good. The choices you make during character generation should be meaningful.

Well, maybe.

I’ll come back to that too. Maybe not today. But someday. I’m writing a note to myself. Point is, in 3E, you started defining your character much more heavily through character generation. And that led to this sort of crazy race to get more and more character options to market. New classes, new races, new feats, new spells, new subclasses, new prestige classes. From a marketing standpoint, that’s great. But it did lead to a lot of bloat.

Now, in 5E, some of that got dialed back. But not by much. Characters in 5E are still far more complicated than they ever were in 2E or 1E or Basic. Even the simple characters are quite complex. But what did change from 3E and Pathfinder to 5E was the requirement for forward planning. Basically, now, you design the character you want to play and you’re already playing it. The rest of the game is about that character just getting more powerful. Getting more options to do the same things they can already do. Only more. By 3rd level, every PC in D&D has made all of the major choices they are ever going to have to make to “define” their character. Hell, they’ve even defined their personality. It’s written in on the character sheet and they get bonuses if they stick to that. And there’s no allowance written into the system for personality changes.

In 3E, the character is defined by their goal and they just have to reach it. It’s already a foregone conclusion that they will reach their goal. In 5E, the character is defined in character generation and basically, that’s it. The character is static through the life of the game. It’s just about getting more powerful.

Now, this wouldn’t concern me so much if I didn’t also see so many players treating their character sheet as everything they can do in the game. Remember when I wrote that article about declaring actions? That was one of the specific problems I addressed. Getting bogged down in the mechanics as if they are everything. And another problem I addressed was the whole telepathic player who tells you their whole backstory every time they declare an action.

In literature, there’s a term for a character who doesn’t change throughout the course of the story. It’s “static.” And it’s a no-no. Static characters are dull. Once you know the character, they will never surprise you.

There’s a lot of focus on defining your character. Come up with a concept and build that. Write a backstory. Identify some personality traits. Write those down. And I find it funny because the same people who don’t see any problem with overly well-defined characters that never change are the ones who said “good riddance” to alignment because it was too much of a restrictive straitjacket. Maybe. But that least the old DMG had an entire section that discussed what to do when a character’s alignment had changed.

More to the point, though, for a game that’s supposedly about decisions and discovery and playing to find out what happens, players seem to be pretty heavily encouraged these days to define their characters at the start of play and then stick with it. And GMs are discouraged from taking actions that might get in the way of the players’ long-term plans.

See, I actually started thinking about this when I was reading through Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics and Modiphius’ Conan and Star Trek RPGs. Why? Because both games feature a lot of randomness in character creation. DCC follows a very old-school approach. You roll your ability scores and you play whatever you roll. You have options, sure, but those options are limited by the physical and mental capabilities the dice hand you. You might want to be a wizard, but if you’re too stupid, you’re never going to learn spell number one. The Modiphius games actually take a different tack. There are all these little background story elements you roll for that carry mechanical consequences. So, you roll up your background and the character you come out with is the product of a bunch of life events, it looks neat.

But what caught my eye is that DCC practically begs players to try their form of character generation before they decide to ignore it and make the character they want to make. “Just try playing a character you rolled just once. You might enjoy it. It’s a fun and unique role-playing challenge to define a character through play instead of scripting the exact character you’re going to be. Please. Just try it once.” And I found it sad that it has to beg. The most memorable characters I have ever played were characters I rolled. And they were memorable because of the in-game events, not because of the clever backstory I came up with as an excuse for the character I rolled. After all, backstory is supposed to be boring. I mean, I know that one fool from WotC recently said you can’t make a D&D PC without a tragic backstory on Twitter. I can’t remember who. But I saw the Tweet. And it was dumb. One of my favorite characters was a fairly average fighter who ran away from home because he didn’t want to be a farmer and decided to be a hero. Interestingly, he sort of became more of a villain than a hero because of everything that happened. It’s a long story. In fact, it’s the length of a D&D campaign. Which is what makes it cool.

Modiphius’ games don’t quite beg, but they do offer the option to ignore the rules with what feels like some reluctance in the text. Like the designers knew the game was better, was more fun, if you let the dice fall where they may. And they’d really rather you tried it their way. But, if you must ignore their rolls, well, you can. And I get it. Because there’s certain players at my table that I know I could never, ever convince not even once to try playing a character that the dice handed them even though I know they’d do very well with it. They are very good at playing characters, very good at discovering them, but won’t dare to challenge themselves with a character they didn’t create for themselves 100% absolutely. And they are also the players who tend to always pick the “most unique” mechanical options. As if that crap matters.

See, by focusing so heavily on defining the character during character generation, I think the game has started to sell this idea that who you are by birth is more important than what you do with your life. And that’s a trend in a lot of stories these days; there’s a definite shift from everyman heroes to chosen one heroes. But I think that’s the wrong way to go in a game that is literally defined by the open-endedness of the choices it offers players. It makes me sad that people seem to be voluntarily accepting straitjackets and locking their choices down at character generation. As long as they get to pick the color of the straitjacket.

As I said, this could all be just a grumpy old gamer yelling at clouds. And you’re welcome to treat it that way. I’m just thinking things through and looking at trends and trying to figure out what’s bugging me these days. Because I am bugged. I’m not happy with the way things seem to be playing out in the D&D games I’m running and the ones I’m paying attention that other people are running. Pathfinder too. And moreover, I’m bugged by what various players and GMs are complaining about these days. There’s an itch of dissatisfaction in my brain. A weird something that feels off lately. And it’s probably going to take more BS articles to pin it down.

But feel free to comment. I’m actually curious what kind of fights I start this time.

145 thoughts on “A Trifecta of BS

  1. As a GM, I feel very called out by point #1. I’ve definitely done that thing where I obsess over balance with my encounters because why do they give you CRs and shit if you shouldn’t use them? But I think I ultimately agree with the conclusion that it’s really not that important, even if I don’t quite follow the highway back in time to AD&D to solve this problem.

    When I had to deal with that “my characters fight every fight to the death because they’ve been conditioned by balance” problem, I re-organized most of my encounters around narrative stakes rather than mechanical ones. The stakes of the encounter weren’t really “you might die,” since the balance dictated that the PCs could probably take who they were up against. They were “stop the thieves from taking the jewels” or “stop the assassins from killing the Ambassador” or “don’t let the sappers bomb three of the eight pillars.” The tension didn’t arise from “this is dangerous and I might die” but from the narrative consequences at failing the parameters of the encounter. If the jewels get stolen, the ambassador dies or the building collapses because of the PCs’ failure, then the story gets tough for them.

    • I like your thinking here. I’m currently DM’ing a Curse of Strahd campaign and found out that, while I’m not using XP and instead I’m tracking milestones, my players still want to kill most enemies they face. And they’re very good at it. Until they walked into a hag coven at level 4 after ignoring all the flashing “this is dangerous af” signs.. oh well, they learned from it, some had to roll up new PCs, life continues.

      But what they didn’t anticipate was when they chose to spend time pursuing false leads and getting into unnecessary fights, Strahd’s plans are still in motion. They chose to flee a fight they were way out of their league in (kudos to them) not had to watch as the city was razed

    • Balance is interesting to me. There are certain encounters that the player’s are highly likely to fight, and it seems important to me that we balance those. For instance, while the players can notice the spider webs and choose to sneak through the acromantula nest, we’d all be a bit miffed if they avoided the Big Bad Dragon at the end.

      I tend to take that as my guide as to which encounters to balance. If I’d be surprised and a bit disappointed if the players avoided the enemy entirely, I make sure it’s balanced. If it’s just an obstacle in the way, I tend to let logic dictate how many creatures there should be.

      For instance, if the players get ambushed by a group of thugs, those thugs are probably used to dealing with a small group of soldiers guarding a caravan. They are therefore loosely balanced to beat the guards in the local town.

      Similarly, my party sneaked into a kobold lair, avoiding the traps entirely. There were meant to be around 40 kobolds in seperate rooms, who the party now found sleeping in one large chamber. Had the party attacked, the kobolds would have been unarmed (weapons were at one side of the room) but drastically outnumbering the party. I have no idea how that balances in the DMG, but it made sense and was fun to play.

  2. I think the changing nature of “Lonely Fun” has had an impact on character development. In older editions of DND, your stats had a disproportionate impact on your character, so it was fun to keep rolling random characters just to see how good you could roll.

    Then in 2e, Lonely Fun become about all of these different worlds and all the different settings and adventures. Lonely fun became thinking about engaging with the setting.

    In 3e (and maybe 4e?), the huge number of mechanical complications and trees of feats created a whole new type of lonely fun: looking for how to maximize characters mechanically. You could have created 100 different unique, minmaxed characters but never played a real DND game.

    Now with 5e, it’s complicated enough to still minmax, though not to the extent of 3e. But the new type of lonely fun is watching people act out DND characters online. Though there are many exceptions, a lot of streamers pick a concept and act it out, probably because they’re coming more from an entertainment background then roleplaying background.

    Although I wish everyone who is interested in DND, including your self, had the time and option to play regularly, it’s not always the case, so Lonely Fun and its changing nature still impact how we think about the game.

      • What I think he means by Lonely Fun is “fun you can have with the game doing stuff that has nothing to do with running a session for other people.”

        And as a GM who came into the hobby through 2e and through the various White Wolf games, “engaging with the settings” sounds exactly like how I engaged with the game when I wasn’t running it. I poured through setting books and Dungeon Magazine modules, built my own pantheon and cosmology, drew copious terrible maps, and so on. And those habits carried on with me even as I played later versions of D&D and even other games like FATE Core and Savage Worlds. Heck, right now I’m running a Savage Worlds fantasy game that’s inspired by D&D because I couldn’t quite make the campaign I wanted to run work right in 5e D&D.

        • I suspect that for various structural reasons–the nature of the product and the business–a lot of sales are of products that will never be played. Ironically, this is now accepted as a given in wargaming, and increasingly so in boardgames. The recent trend of solo play in boardgames, including “AIs” or “automa” designed so you can play against the game, is interesting in this regard. So you have to design for lonely fun, or at least know it’s going to be a huge factor in the product reception.

  3. I think your points are both accurate and the result of the game’s commercial success.
    The hardest thing about D and D has always been how to play it. 5e is an example of a company finding its feet and releasing a product designed for consumers to use. Detailed character creation helps newbs–here’s an absolute template–and also more experienced players, who get to optimize crunch like they would in a video game like Diablo III.
    More subtly, a lot of 5e is designed to get past *shitty DMs*, the biggest stumbling block of all. Newb DMs, unprepared DMs, reluctant DMs (“someone has to be the DM”), stupid DMs. If you have a block of rules and feats for your character, you’ve got something to carry you past crappy DM-ing. You always have something to do if he’s just plopping encounters in front of you, or failing to think much about his NPCs and the world they live in, etc. etc.
    Encounter balance, here, is the DM equivalent of the predetermined character.
    Both are training wheels.
    5e doesn’t do a great job of teaching you how to run a game. Perhaps they don’t want to be in that business, trusting to things like Critical Role (and Angry!) to model that stuff. I suspect that there aren’t enough good DMs, or people who want to be good DMs, to support much effort in that direction.
    5e is a much better product than any edition before it, and I’ve played since Blue Box. But I’m increasingly thinking it’s not a better *game*.

    • Having recently gone through three months of running a ‘retroclone’, I totally agree on the training wheels thing for 5e. I trust just about anyone to run 5e competently, but OD&D? Yeah, that’s a minefield. But man is it nice to get away from skill systems and overly gamey mechanics.

  4. I started playing dnd in 3.5e, and I have heard lots of stories that line up pretty closely with what you described. Currently I am a gm for a group of players all starting in 5th edition and sometimes the difference in supposed possibile actions is interesting. The players will hold their class abilities as gospel for what they will do, while I tend to run my monsters as much more tactical (my opinion.)

  5. First of all, I’ve an obsession with balance. Inter-party character balance though. I personally get frustrated if I play a character that seems ineffective compared to a party member. As a result I dislike rolling ability scores. I dislike how D&D barely gives any thought to balance outside of combat scenarios. (D&D 5e’s ‘pass without trace’ can overshadow stealthy characters for example.) I dislike when the game system doesn’t have a rough semblance of balance between character options.

    For me, rolling ability scores indicates a system with a high character turnover rate. ‘Hey, go roll up a character and hop in, you might TPK in two sessions anyway so don’t get too attached.’ Picking between options, making decisions, spending some time creating a character, it creates more attachment to your character. Add in a short little background for your GM to hook into, and instead of remembering your characters by those great victories the player pulled off, you might just remember them by the story arcs the character pulled off. You might get a different playstyle, experience and/or mindset.

    As for encounter balance, I’m currently confusing my group (including myself? I think?) by not assuming encounters to be CR appropriate.

    • I agree with practically everything you said.

      Class balance (or balance of any character options) does seem very important, but only to the extent that some character options don’t invalidate other options by virtue of being objectively better at the same tasks.
      A push effect might be incomparable to a damage bonus, sure, but if the only difference between two options is that one does more damage, then that’s not an option, that’s a trap.

      This doesn’t negate the precision argument, but it does qualify it. If two options support sufficiently different playstyles, they can survive being 1 damage out and not break anything.

      To complicate matters, often the perceived balance is more important than the actual balance.
      Even if one option is stronger, it might ‘feel’ weaker in play, and players will still feel like they chose wrong (for example, many (but not all) of the complaints against 5e Rangers).

  6. On the subject of players killing everything that moves and always assume they’re gonna win I actually find myself with the opposite problem: my players always assume the worse out of everything I throw at them, they see conspiracies everywhere and sometime outright refuse to embark on a quest because the jolly young halfling who asked them for a favor “looked dodgy”. At the same time though, whenever they’re forced to fight, they act like nothing can stop them, they refuse to surrender or come up with more interesting solution than just charging into battle and bash their foes into submission.

    • I’ve always assumed the first problem came from past experiences with overly devious GMs, while the second was the result of the change in gaming colture, as Angry said, but recently I started wondering if there could be something else behind both, something that I’m missing or just doing wrong…

      • It might be the current influences into our gaming thinking. Literature inspired early editions. Video games are inspiring later editions. Video games generally have a fighting mentality, or a click on the appropriate response mentality.

        Another factor to consider is the fun-type. Maybe you are trying to hit an itch no one has, an folks just want a dungeon crawl with the occasional exposition dialogue box before they get back to killing critters. At my table, I am constantly surprised by the opposite – most my guys want to solve problems through clever ideas and bypass stuff. I recently had them run from the Big Bad during the last scene. That was their choice – they looked at the situation and said it wasn’t worth their lives, and they found a creative way to run.

      • I’m currently GMing for four brand new players and one experienced. On finding a child scared alone in a house, one of my new players stabbed him because he “seemed suspicious”.

        It’s not all about past GMs, it comes down to risk analysis. If this character has vital, trustworthy information, the GM will have to wither give us that information another way or give us a different quest. If they were simply intended to be an ally, they would eat up time in combat. So there is very little to gain from trusting any character.

        On the flip side, betrayal is an incredibly powerful trope, used to great effect in a lot of stories. The players know there is a reasonable chance they’ll have met the Big Bad in disguise before the end of the game, or that it’ll turn out the local bartender was actually behind the schemes all along. Players don’t want to feel stupid when that inevitably happens, so they avoid trusting any NPCs.

        • One thing that I like to do throughout games is briefly break the fourth wall, and tell my players straight up: “I always like to give you someone trustworthy that you can use as a resource that I won’t screw with – I won’t go after the guy to kill, betray, or kidnap. This is that guy.” It might take a sliver off the fun side, but I usually wait until they are actively enjoying interactions with that NPC so its more of a relief.

          Betrayal is so overdone that it has lost its power. Now a days, I remain fairly straightforward with my characters: the bad guys ‘feel’ bad to the players somehow. The good guys ‘feel’ trustworthy. It is usually established through ambiance, tone, and the general portrayal of the character. While the characterization is more straightforward, the characters and plots remain complex. The more I DM, the more I realize that what I consider a simple plot is typically enough complexity for the players that show up once a week / every other week.

  7. You’re just straight up wrong about rolling characters, in a bunch of ways. When I’ve rolled stats & rolled poorly, I did not enjoy playing a fat idiot who sucked at everything, because he was a fat idiot who sucked at everything. When I rolled well, it still wasn’t fun, because it felt like his successes weren’t earned, they were just due to lucky rolls that gave him ridiculous stats. That character felt more like an unfair “chosen one” than any point-buy no-randomness character I’ve ever built. The most fun characters I’ve played used point-buy stats with planned paths (which made them feel like generic everymen who then trained to get good), because after that initial planning, I know they’ll be competent, so I’m much freer during gameplay to just focus on their story & decisions. (cont’d?)

    • Cont’d. You whine about game balance not being as important as people think it is, but when was the last time you were in a really unbalanced game? Like, some characters are so much more competent than others that the others wonder why they’re even there? Like, two characters kill the Tarrasque in half a round while the rest of the party makes tea? Like, one dude one-shots the big bad guy with four tommy guns and exploding dice in Savage Worlds? Like, social interaction becoming nonsense because it’s difficult for the bard to roll less than 30 on any charisma check?

      It’s easy to mock game balance when you have it, but not having it breaks games & results in players having nothing to do for significant parts of a session, because their contributions are at best negligible compared to someone else’s.

      • I run a game that takes an old school approach to game balance, so I can respond to this. I find that game balance is much less of an issue for players and GMs who (a) have a lot of experience playing the game, and/or (b) learned to game in an unbalanced system (or at least on unbalanced adventures).

        If you have a certain experience and a certain approach, it matters a whole lot less if your character is less than average. Your skill as a player has a much greater impact or survivability and usefulness than most people realize.

        And since new gamers play with their peers, and not with older, more experienced gamers, each generation starts fresh and learns slowly. Which means that the newer you are, and the less exposure you have to an unbalanced aesthetic, the more balance matters.

        Which is why I would have agreed with you when I started gaming, but don’t agree with you now.

        • To add to this, I think that the less a system/GM expects of the character on the sheet, the less balanced you need your character generation. When it feels like literally everything requires a skill check, than having low skills and attributes sucks, and it’s much more rewarding to strategically plan your character. When you go to the other extreme (D&D 1974) where your stats have very little overt effect (+10% experience gain and maybe, just maybe, a plus one to some rolls), then it’s all about tactical choices at the table, but rolling your character at all can seem kind of unnecessary. There’s a happy medium there, I think, where rolling a character can feel like being dealt a hand of cards, then you have to figure out how to play the game with what you’ve got.

      • >>when was the last time you were in a really unbalanced game?<<

        Honestly? Every single 3.X/PF game I've ever played in or that I run. Because character classes are terribly balanced from a theoretic design standpoint. Doesn't even matter if you're rolling stats or use PB, because stats aren't nearly as important as some people make them out to be.

        And still, not a single one of those games broke down because of those mechanical imbalances. And that is basically for all the many reasons Angry pointed out in this BS article.

        So yes, game balance in RPGs is totally overrated.

      • My playing experience ranges from AD&D to D&D 3.5, but not with D&D 4 or 5 so take that into account with my comments. I agree with Wormys and Rightback, the unbalance that you (Steve) are complaining about comes not from different character stats, but rather with the ability to plan out an optimized character, which is harder to do when taking the dice as rolled. The optimized character includes the fact that not all the classes are equally competent, especially at high levels. I also think that most systems for taking the rolls as given usually include an option to re-roll if the characters is not at least plausibly survivable.

        What I missed most when playing 3.5 is what Angry was talking about, i.e., the uncertainty about encounters and the requirement to think beyond combat. But this really comes down the GM being willing to either add in risk, for example via random encounter, plan their own adventures and make them challenging, or actively tweaking pre-done adventures to adjust the level of difficulty. The latter might be difficult to do without blocking off the adventure’s solution.

        One idea I had about the over-planning/optimization (in my mind) of characters is to hide the advanced and prestige classes in the campaign I am building. Starting characters (and players) would know about and have access to the basic classes. However the more specialized classes would be the province of groups/organizations within the world. They might not match the ‘official’ classes and some of the official classes might not be available at all since they wouldn’t fit in the flavor of the world. Characters would have to either research or stumble upon these groups in order to find a special class. Then their objectives would still have to align with the organizations in order to actually gain the class. This would make it more likely that the development of the character be driven by a general goal/model that the characters wanted to achieve rather than special abilities they want to have. Granted this would take a lot of work to pull off and some/many players might not like it. What do you think?

    • From a different perspective: my best character was a rolled character that was on paper terrible, amongst folks that must have been using loaded die. I did way better than they by having to think outside the box, over-describe approaches, and leveraging creative applications of spells and rituals to get the thing done.

      Most of the guys that I play with enjoy rolling when the rolls are all over the place, and enjoy the 17 starting strength, 7 intelligence (or other comb) guys that are great at one thing ad entirely hamstrung by other situations.

      Also – I think you may have misunderstood his discussion about balance (in your Cont’d post): I think you are talking about player to player balance, and he is talking about player to environment balance. I can see some of your points in an isolated environment, but rolling well on a charisma check for a bard should not always work — somethings should not be possible even with a roll of 30+ because they are in-game impossible. One of the complexities that I like from Angry is a focus on action consequence driving the decision-making versus skill check excellence driving the decision-making.

    • Yeah, I’ve NEVER liked rolling for stats because it inevitably leads to resentment within a game that is supposed to be fun and an escape from the real world, where there is plenty of inequity. I’ll never run another game that doesn’t use some kind of point buy system, whether it’s the one in the 5E PHB or as simple as what I did for my most recent game (where I told each player, “You have 75 points to divide among your ability scores before racial bonuses; you can’t have more than one score above 15, and you can’t have more than three scores above 13.)

      • My group usually rolls for stats, but if you don’t like what you rolled you can take the standard array instead.
        It protects against useless characters, but still allows occasional superheroes.

        One method I’ve been considering is having everyone roll to generate an array, then anyone can pick any of the arrays rolled by any player.
        I’ve not tried it out yet, but the idea is that if one person rolls really good stats, then everyone can choose to have really good stats and you get a team of superheroes instead of having just one superhero among a team of puny mortals.

  8. I find whole tragic backstory thing to be a bit overused and unnecessary. I had a character who was basically on a post-college trip around the world before settling down and accepting his responsibilities.

    The funny part is that tweet came from the same people who talk and praise about the level of freedom of expression of D&D. I mean a month before that it was “that a GM that tells you how an elf should act is not a good GM” because it is ruining the player’s freedom of expression. (Which in itself is a shot at the GM’s freedom of expression by making it so that the GM is unable to define how the elves are portrayed in their world.) Though do note: I understand both points of view, because I can read what the tweet was trying to say (I agree with the principle of the player defines the character), but the resulting praise parade just made an enemy out of any GM who would dare to tell their player anything to the contrary. I mean really it is just the players want to play an elf, but don’t want to role-play an elf. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also the addition of the fact that if the DM’s world doesn’t fit that the DM is the bad guy.

  9. I n games that I’ve seen where you only roll your characters, you’re sort of encouraged to not identify with them very much, because it’s expected that they will die stupidly sometime during the campaign. And follow-up characters probably will too, like they’re sort of… disposable characters? I can see why you’d want randomness to create disposable characters: because you’ll need to make them quickly and still have them feel different. But also, why? Why waste the time with a character you don’t really care about? Why waste the time with a character you barely put any effort into anyway?

    A guy I game with likes to say that “characters are defined by their constraints and how they over come them”. It’s an easy thing for him to say, just like it is for you, but when he plays characters who aren’t good at stuff, he doesn’t have any fun.

    You talk about how stats limiting your options forces you to make difficult choices, like being too dumb to use magic. But, is wanting to do magic, yet not being able to do magic because you rolled dice badly, more fun than just wanting to do magic, and then doing magic? Or is that just a dumb thing you say that makes you feel smart?

    • What if the effort you put into the character is at the table, with your friends? What if what’s interesting is the actual game, not the paperwork before the game? I’m being a bit facetious here, but also kind of not. I’ve definitely felt bummed out when playing a character with some sub optimal stats/ abilities before, but at least part of that was the feeling that it was impossible to overcome. And in my experience that’s usually temporary, because I can find a niche for my character to be useful in once I’ve got a feeling for the group.

      I think that random character generation is only fun if the game is designed as a challenge for you, the player, not you, the elf wizard. That’s probably another one of those empty aphorisms you seem to find so distasteful, but I’m not sure how to put it better. If your game is supposed to be a story about how a group of characters overcame some challenges, than yes, the characters should be interesting and relatively balanced. If, and I think this is in many ways the opposite of that, your game is about playing a game with your friends where you put yourselves in hypothetical scenarios and try to figure out how you would go about getting out of it, having a randomly generated avatar for yourself can add to the engagement.

    • I think it obvious that you’re lacking in the experience of playing rolled characters. To say that they’re disposable and players can’t identify with them and such is utter rubbish. There were character sheets that I held onto for well over a decade after the campaigns in which they appeared, simply because I cherished the memory of those characters.

      And none of those characters were the result of really lucky rolls. For a couple of them, my character wasn’t the only one of that class in the party–and mine wasn’t the most capable of the two (or three) of the same class. Didn’t make a damn bit of difference, as the joy of playing them arose from actually playing them–figuring out how they could succeed when it wasn’t easy (and nothing was easy).

    • I think there’s definitely two sides to the “play the character the dice give you” idea.

      On the one side, a player’s only interface with the game is their character. If they seem a bit precious about them, that’s why. Asking someone to commit to half a year or more of regular sessions with an avatar that fails to float their boat can feel a bit unfair. In 5e particularly, stats have a far bigger impact than in 3.X/PF.

      On the other hand, I think the idea of just taking the dice as they fall and asking yourself, “So who *is* this guy?” is actually pretty interesting and encourages playing character concepts you otherwise might never try.

      Here’s an idea.

      Everyone rolls three sets of stats. Leave them as they fall, no switching around. Then they choose one set and work out who that character is.

      This sort of semi-simulates the Dungeon World approach where you create several PCs, but the crap ones die during the first adventure.

  10. Speaking mostly as a player, but now somewhat as a DM too: I think you’re conflating problems with the situations they just happened to coincide with. I strongly prefer “balanced” systems and characters I know will be somewhat competent. IME, a “balanced” system, i.e. one that does as much as it can to equip both DMs and players with maximal ability to make informed choices, is a help to its users. It leads to players who confidently act as befits the situation, and DMs who throw whatever seems fun into the experience, because they don’t worry that there’s a “gotcha” waiting in the wings. If they fail, they know it isn’t just luck, but a mixture of bad decisions (which can be learned from) and overly trusting probability (which encourages them to reduce their reliance on it). The murderhobo problem long, long predates WotC’s systems, so I’m suspicious that this is “caused” by system balance. Rather, I think it’s just a lazy player habit that becomes more obvious when (a) there are more people playing the game, and (b) DMs provide incentives to *not* negotiate (e.g. it always bites you in the ass) etc. but fail to reward it when players do do this.

    I’ll admit, I’m like one of your “no dice roulette” players, but I absolutely deny that this makes my characters flat. I know the training I’d *like* and the trajectory I’ve initially set, but what interests me is asking (effectively) “What does adventure do to this person?” How do they change as a result of the things they face? Become harder, softer, more driven, more reluctant, more/less violent? A randomly-generated character isn’t a *person* for me, I can’t feel like I’m exploring a personality or a process through them. It feels…frankly really artificial. Akin to trying to write a poem by randomly deciding what form, meter, language, topic, and perspective I’ll use. I might be able to make something that meets the definition of “a poem,” but it won’t have the spark of inspiration that my self-made work does.

    • As someone who often has trouble coming up with inspiration, I find the randomly-generated character to be a fun way to get myself out of analysis paralysis. The trick is to go in completely blind, with no prejudice to who this person is gonna end up as. High strength, high wisdom, low constitution? Could be an aging mercenary, an angry young woman left for dead, or a zealot with leprosy. Each new roll becomes a piece you use to puzzle your character together. Attachment comes from playing them, not from making them.

      That being said, most systems I’ve seen for random characters don’t throw out balance or player preference entirely. There are rules in place to make sure no one is forced into playing the village idiot due to poor rolls or to let you move a high roll into intelligence if you really want to be a wizard. If you really wanna be fair, you can just take your system’s “standard array” and randomize what points are going where. Some of my favorite characters, ones I’ve played for years, have come out of just such an exercise.

      As for Angry’s other points on balance, I don’t think he’s advocating for a complete abolishment of the CR system or any other guidelines in RPGs. In fact, I’m sure he’s not because he’s one of the biggest proponents of making sure that your players know the situation and can act accordingly. The issue I personally have in my games is that by slavishly following 5e’s encounter balancing, I’m limiting the stories I can tell. I can’t the story of the party’s desperate flight from the goblin horde because I can’t put in enough goblins to pose a real threat to them. I can’t tell the tale of how they completed the dungeon in a reasonable amount of time because I get angry at them for not being able to handle what the system says they should and taking too many rests.

      The problem isn’t balance itself, only a fool would argue that. The problem is balance being presented as a recipe to follow to reach perfection, and not as a skill to cook tasty dishes of every variety. The greatest tool in any RPG is the GM’s brain. It needs a path to stray from as needed, not a rail to be bound to.

      • It sounded much stronger than “balance can’t produce perfection, so don’t strive for perfection,” which is fine. Instead, it seems extended to a far more strident claim: that balance is “an overrated joke,” that ALL balance is doomed to failure, so just suck it up and get used to imbalance.

        I reject that. You can build a robustly balanced system. It won’t be perfect. But it’s not that hard to make a system where, typically (say 75% of use cases), the range of statistical outcomes is bounded to the desired degree. Because it’s statistical, there WILL be outliers–that’s how probability works. And because it’s open-ended, there WILL be unexpected situations–that’s how humans work. But those two facts do not establish that balance is a “joke.” They establish that balance has limits.

        If Angry just means, “Balance has limits, know them & prepared to improvise ’em,” then fine. But it sounds like he’s saying, “Balance has limits, so F it, do whatever you want.” It is not always true that “game balance is really only kind of a vague guess at best anyway.” Game balance, even good and robust balance, is possible, without needing uniformity or perfection. Asymmetrical balance is a thing, for example. Balance =/= uniformity, and statistical testing CAN shape rules that work often enough.

        I also don’t buy that a combat you’re 90% likely to win can never be exciting. Pitfalls during a fight can be totally exciting even if net victory is likely: Can Garthik survive the round so Rhys can heal him? Will Maeve be able to climb the cliff face fast enough to stop the ritual before it completes? Etc. Even a 10% chance of failure may be too much when Really Important Things are on the line. While you can motivate players by killing their characters, you’ll find (IMO) greater motivation by giving the characters something to live, strive, and sacrifice for–in “new” D&D, anyway. The high-turnover characters of old-school D&D aren’t a great fit for this, because when death is as likely as it is there, why be invested in avenging the murder of Bob VIII’s brother, because Bob VIII is probably dead by next month and his replacement Bob IX has no reason to care about said brother’s murder.

  11. I run a 4e, unbalanced, old-school game. This is what that looks like. I have reduced experience from combat to 15%, making up the remaining 85% with experience earned from acquisition of treasure. I encourage the retention of henchmen and men at arms (easy to run “essentials” classes) and large parties. I make some monsters and some encounters deadlier than the accepted 4e design aesthetic, so that my players know that combat is risky. Deadly monsters are telegraphed, like the forest of statues you walk through before getting to the medusa (gorgon).

    My monsters talk a lot. Guards ask your business, instead of attacking on sight. Lots of people work for the Evil Overlord, they wouldn’t want to accidentally kill a favoured servant or an emissary from the Evil High Priest! Bandits will let you live if you hand over your treasure. Dragons can be capricious and may let you live, or even retain you, if you amuse them.

    Encounters are avoidable. Dungeons include lots of loops, secret doors and alternate approaches to areas. And if the monster blocking the passage looks too tough, you can come back after you have gained a couple of levels. Scouting is important to avoid getting caught in a battle you don’t want.

    I reward skilled play and generally allow clever approaches to succeed without a skill check, and make the DCs for skill checks higher than usual so it is risky to rely on just the check.

    I require character optimization to happen in-game. That is, there is a randomness to option selection at first level; you learn what your master is able to teach you, or what you stumble upon on your own. If you want better options, you have to find someone who knows the option you want and convince them to train you. NPCs are built using randomly assigned powers and feats, so that such mentors can be found randomly. Or the PC can seek out mentors who are known to have the good options.

    The same thing goes for spells and magic items. Treasure is found randomly unless you quest for specific items, or specific ingredients to make items.

    Finding a mentor is a hook. Finding specific magic items is a hook. Crafting magic items is a hook.

    • If there is a theme, it is greater but avoidable risks, and decoupling the risks from the rewards. In standard 4e and 5e you have to fight the monster to get the experience. In 1e you can still get the experience if you get the treasure without fighting the monster.

    • This game sounds awesome…but it also sounds a lot like BECMI or 1e. Any benefit you find from the 4e ruleset?

      • Tactics matter. You know how OSR guys are always saying, “player skill, not character skill”, and then they trash on 4e? Well in 4e combat, player skill matters.

        Also, waaay less subsystems to remember. And once I hacked magic items it became easier to make them. And I’m working on a system for Domain play that has every indication of being way better (running companies of men at arms as swarms, treating titles of nobility, lands and castles as magic items that provide skill bonuses, etc.).

    • Do you ever feel like the system is getting in the way of how you want to run the game? I can’t remember the last time I ran a game where I didn’t at bare minimum screw around with the experience awards, but there are some things when screwing around with 5th (lighting, encumbrance and spells, to be specific) where it really felt like I was going to have to overhaul a good chunk of the book to get it to work the way I wanted to. I guess I just want to know why you’re sticking to 4th edition when it’s famously(notoriously?) the most encounter focused edition of D&D. When I wanted to play an old school game I just went with an old school system.

      • Because when I actually want to run an encounter, I don’t want the system to suck. 4E has the most interesting combats, by far, and the most robust encounter mechanics. This is, of course, just my opinion.
        I typically don’t feel like the system gets in my way, but I usually lower HP and up damage for monsters, just to make things a bit quicker. Basically like what the designers did with the last few books. That is one thing I do wish was different, but it’s not difficult to overcome.
        3.5 & Pathfinder have problems with bloat that is low quality, and combat options for characters are rarely satisfying (“You can totally Trip, Disarm, Sunder, Charge… but those are all awful choices. Your only good option is to just attack every turn. Or better yet, forget the whole thing and just play a magic caster, you dummy.”) It’s somehow complicated without adding much depth.
        5E’s combat swings too much in the other direction. It’s wonderfully simple, but shallow. Encounters are very “stand and deliver”, and movement and positioning barely matter. It would be a good system for a group of completely new players, or young players, but for me its too bare bones to be interesting.

        • I actually agree whole-heartedly about 4e: a wonderful system if you like mechanical depth and meaningful combat. I dislike how a lot of character classes feel highly similar to each other, but its still a solid system. My players are NOT tacticians; they are fidgety. They like to do random things to see what happens and they are all new players – none of which have purchased any materials what-so-ever.

          I throw in a LOT of extra stuff in my 5e encounters. Drifting damage zones that pack a punch, shifting terrain, reinforcements coming from unexpected (but logical) directions, etc. My new campaign (starting in about 2 weeks) is beginning with a train heist with a lot of locked train cars, a narrow / shallow tunnel, and a bridge that blows up just before the train gets there. There are very few ‘stand and deliver’ encounters. But that is not ‘out of the box’ 5e, the DM really has to throw some extra elements on there to make encounters ‘dynamic’ rather than just ‘occurring.’

          I used to play with a bunch of 4e guys that were not super technical – they didn’t make good choices (let alone ‘optimal’ choices) so it did tend to make combat very difficult for the rest of us. It really depends on what your game group is like – mine would flounder with the oh-so-many choices presented by 4e and love the 3 things they can do in 5e.

      • I don’t find the system gets in the way. Once I figured out how the system actually worked, as opposed to how the designers kept telling people it worked, I was able to design all sorts of game elements and make them behave consistently. And having a core mechanic makes it way easier to adjudicate the nutty things that players try.

        Combat goes faster than usual because every fight doesn’t need to be a special snowflake set piece. Also, in addition to a lot of encounters being tougher than the 4e aesthetic requires, a lot are easier and go quickly.

        Admittedly, it was a lot of work to crack the system. But once I cracked it, it was easy. I just finished running Hommlet in 4e, and my first sessions were run on the fly, with first level characters we had lying around, using 4e monsters which I adjusted on the fly to simulate the power levels of their 1e equivalents.

        I also admit that I do it computer assisted using a virtual tabletop with programmed tokens. If I had to do it pencil-and-paper, I would probably play 5e.

    • One thing I really like about this is the inextricable way you tether mechanical character development with narrative character development. I’ve always been a huge proponent of running that kind of game. Back in 3.5/PF, I wouldn’t allow players to put skill points into skills they hadn’t used since their last level up unless they specifically made it a point to say that they wanted to train those skills during downtime. How can you get better if you never train or practice?

  12. Interesting stuff. I’ve been a lurker in a lot of the OSR stuff pretty much since I got into TTRPGs, even though I’ve never run an “OSR” game.

    I don’t think you have to run “OSR” games to benefit from running games in that style, though. You can apply that mindset to many RPGs – lots of people run 5e with more of a “combat as war” than “combat as sport” (common shorthand for the old school vs new school way of thinking about combat you got into) mindset, for example – though it is difficult because the “balanced encounter” stuff is pretty hard-baked into the 5e system.

    I think you do a good job in this article of articulating (or beginning to articulate, at least) the benefits of the OSR gameplay philosophy, which is cool to see from someone who is outside the “scene” and presumably a lot of the other baggage that comes with it.

    I’m interested to see where this goes. I’m particularly curious if you’ll get into a third “style” of character progression – that of Savage Worlds and its ilk where there are no classes (so there’s very little “who you’re born as matters”) and you gain abilities piecemeal. I think it has the potential to offer the best of “cool character options” play and “emergent character development” play, which is why I’m switching from 5e to Savage Worlds for my next campaign (and running an OSR module).

  13. Balance definitely isn’t the be all end all, but…I’ve had a dungeon master who tried to say a monster dealing out 3D6 on a damage roll is a CR1.

    • It is possible, but only if the creature had many drawbacks.

      For instance, a creature with AC1, 1hp and a -20 to initiative dealing 3d6 of damage could reasonably be CR 1/4.

    • That does in fact not sound too far off from a CR1 monster. Just for clarity, do you thing 3d6 is too much or too little?

      One example that comes to my head, because I had one in a recent game is the Warhorse skeleton. CR 1/2, does 2d6+4 (which is roughly the same as 3d6) on a hit. No multi-attack.

  14. I have one criticism about the “let the dice roll what they may” method of character generation: cheating. Requiring certain stats to be rolled to be a “good” character is too much of a temptation for many power gamer types, who are more interested in “winning” than roleplaying. If this existed in a vacuum, it wouldn’t matter, since their having fun in their own way wouldn’t matter. But in the context of a group game, one cheater who “rolled” the Ubermensch only creates friction and frustration with the other players.

    This isn’t a huge problem with DCC since each funnel character is made of elemental fragilium, so Waldo the All-18 Wonder could die room one. But in other games where each player makes but a single character, and combat is a major focus of the game, point buy becomes the superior system both in leveling the power levels of the characters and allowing the GM to have a reasonable expectation as to what the characters are capable of.

    I mean, in all honesty, how many 18/xx fighters did you see back in the day that had less than a /76? Not many. And how much whining about having a “useless” character did you have to suffer through because they had to settle for a 16 or 17?

    • I saw far less of that than you assume, I’ll wager. My most memorable fighter? STR 17. He wasn’t the strongest fighter in the party, nor did he have the most hp. Another memorable fighter? 18/01–of all the times to roll an 01, eh? Lots of characters with a 16 or 17 as highest roll. I can recall one notable PC with no characteristic above a 14. Those are from my PCs.

      I GMed far more than I played and I saw PCs regularly that had no 18s and so many that had no 17s. Perhaps it was the region of the country in which I lived, though I certainly wouldn’t put much stock in that as an explanation.

      And cheaters were few and far between, if only because we generally rolled characters at the same time. With a handful of other people at the table watching and chatting about the rolls. I recall one player in my hometown who would cheat if allowed to roll without witnesses; all of the GMs with whom we played simply disallowed any PC from him that hadn’t been witnessed.

      • I have a player at my table who legitimately rolled an 18, two 16s, and a 15. Admittedly, I can’t remember what the other two rolls were.

        I got lucky that she is a new player, and the absurd stat bonuses are somewhat balancing her lack of experience. As an elf, she has 20 starting Dex. This will hopefully balance out with levels, but it was painful for other players that she always started combat with the highest damage in the party.

        • What’s going to be interesting is how that character develops, more than the advantage at the start. It’ll be interesting to watch how the party interactions play out, too, which is one of the joys of rolling up characters. It’s not just the single character development that’s interesting–it’s the party development as players adjust to other characters’ strengths and weaknesses that add a great deal of flavor.

    • The last time I did a dice-roll stat line, we balanced it with your ‘lowest roll becomes an 8, your highest roll becomes a 16’. That makes sure everyone has at least an area of weakness and an area of strength. Plus, if someone goes super high on a couple of rolls, the best one drops to a 16, which adds a smidgeon of player-to-player balance while retaining some randomness.

  15. I agree that game balance has been over inflated of its importance. That’s why I love the hackmaster game system, both the original 4e and especially it’s new 5e. Every enemy, even the lowly kobold, has a chance to severely damage or even kill the players. Just going toe-to-toe isn’t always the best option and creates opportunities for players to think outside of the box of their characters abilities. If the players have no fear of death because the game is balanced for their win every time, it’s not fun or challenging.

    • Heh. Hackmaster: “It’s the most awesome game I’ve ever had no desire at all to run. It really is a great game unless you’re running or playing it.” -somebody, somewhere.

      I like it too FWIW.

  16. I’ve never paid any attention to CRs or encounter balance design, and I feel like I’m a better DM for it. I just do some quick comparisons of defenses and to-hit numbers and make sure there is a reasonable chance of hits happening. From the DMs side of the screen, the game doesn’t need to be that balanced, and an unbalanced game encourages some of the clever playing and war stories that Angry is talking about.
    But on the player’s side, I do think balance is a lot more important. This is more of an inter-character balance. As a player, I’ve generated characters both with random rolls and with point-buy and a plan. You should learn about any character through the act of playing that character, but the rolled characters are at a disadvantage. You’re starting from square zero, and probably a lot less initial investment and attachment. And that’s assuming your character is even competent. Failure can be fun occasionally, but it’s not much fun to constantly fail, particularly when one player rolled a god-character that winds up doing everything. A planned character can have a lot more depth straight out of the gate, and its far less likely that one character will outshine the rest of the party. If the players are planning their characters out so much that they are cemented before the game even starts, isn’t it on the DM to throw a small wrench in the works to keep things interesting?
    I think I like these random BS articles the best. They make me think.

    • I tried creating monsters to the book formulas but found that they had about 50% too much HP once past level 3 – each monster took way way way too much time and effort to kill. I couldn’t tell if my players were bad at damage and built overly defensive characters, but I ended up having to make the enemies more damage-heavy glass cannons to make encounters interesting. If my enemies were ‘normal’ via the building guide, they would take forever to kill but pose no threat. Curiously, the Monster Manual generally tend to have lower HP and higher damage outputs.

      I now do a lot more of the wing-it enemy design (remaining consistent, of course), and I pay far less attention to CR as a result.

      • There’s an interesting analysis someone did about how the monsters in the book don’t match the guidelines, and what the guidelines should look like in order to match the book.
        It concludes with a relatively simple method to generate monster stats.


        Personally I did a similar analysis and found the results matched pretty well, but since the process was so imprecise I decided to focus on simplicity instead, so that I can improvise creature stats on the fly, in case my players pick a fight with something unexpected.
        (Side note, I then used these guidelines to redesign the summon monster spells in 5e, along with polymorph and wild shape or anything else that might suddenly require creature stats mid-combat.)

  17. I soured on Pathfinder Society and Adventurer’s league because of the focus for an unfortunately large number of players. If your character cannot pull its weight in combat it’s a bad character, and true balance means every character can pull its weight in combat.

    I’ve been playing these games since the mid-70’s, delighted and sometimes annoyed at the various permutations. The combat game isn’t the game I want to play. If they were I’d go back to my napoleonics and other wargames. I want to dance with queens and drink a dwarf under the table, to run a heist where we’re gone before they know we were interested and persuade a dragon to make mutual defense pact with the nearby village. I’ve DONE that.

    So no, ‘balance’ isn’t such a deal for me. Because the characters who did that? Several of them were ‘suboptimal’ at combat.

  18. I was going to say that rolling up a character randomly screws you over when the other problems aren’t resolved, like if the game is only about combat and rolling dice then rolling badly at the beginning will screw you over. But come to think of it, I’ve played that kind of character. And it’s actually kind of fun to be completely out of your element, a normal mortal running around with heroes and fighting gods. To be terrified and beg the party to retreat when they just want to kill everything, that can be fun. But to me that’s something everyone has to be on board with.

  19. Hi, as a GM that likes balance over chaos, I do not, however, go it off my way to balancemy group vs. my npc’s, critters, creatures, traps, etc. I may sometimes, (while waiting for a character to finish diaolog or some other time consuming action). Add the total damage vs #/attacks and hit points and weigh them vs one another accordingly. Most often, initiative is made, followed and

  20. Throwing a group of ghouls at a low-level party sounds like an absolute riot, I’m using that in the next 5e adventure I run. Previously though, most of the trouble I ran into with intentionally throwing deadly encounters at my players was that they were full of disappointment and tard rage, so they never learned. Players have got to learn the joy of overcoming stacked odds and repeated failure; it’s even a valuable life skill.

    As for character randomisation, I love it and it can lead to some incredible characters, but it also sucks to play a character that’s worse/better than anyone else’s worst/best attributes. It’s the same save-or-die every turn situation but there’s no precaution except begging the DM for a reroll. A few bad rolls ruins your character for the rest of the game. But if there could be LIMITED randomisation, however, that’d be great. Say if you rolled for how variable your stats would be, and then rolled for their allocation, that’d keep characters randomised but still all on a similar playing field.

    Now, attachment is important, but too much leads to anxiety, and too little leads to boredom. Consider roguelike and battle royale video games: when you die early on, oh well, start again. As you go on, though, you get more invested because it’s more likely that this’ll be the run, and a death later on will impact you more. If there’s a high turnover rate and element of randomness early on, repeated success should balance the odds, that’d lead to players becoming attached to their characters at a natural rate, and lessening the emotional impact of early deaths at the hands of fate.

  21. I strongly connect and agree with almost all of this blog.

    I tell my players that there is NO balance, the world is a sandbox and what is there is there…. If they get into a fight they can’t handle… They better run… And they DO.

    This mentality gets begginer players to appreciate every win.. and when they have a cake walk of a fight because they planned well… They congratulate each other and have an awesome time slaughtering the enemy which was not prepared for them… And my new players have almost no grasp of tactics yet.

    Sometimes they loose… Sometimes I’ll adjust stats mid fight because I didn’t mean for something to be as hard as it is going. (Not because of balance… But because it makes sense for the scenario)

    All of my favorite stories come from wild plans we created to defeat enemies that we had no right to be able to beat… But we won because we came up with a plan and made it work.

    This kind of stuff gives so much more watisfsatisf to players than a balanced encounter… Also… KnwouKn that there is no balance puts the power and decisions in their hands. I never have to force them down a path… Sure… Does that make GMing require more work? Yes… But it’s good work in this case!

    Keep it up… Give players the power to choose by making them choose.

  22. If you have a prob with char creation just hand out premades…if you want them to avoid a monster make it obvious they will lose…and mostly, no BS, kill characters generously if you want them to grow callous enough to attack situations in an humble manner.

    • Note, “make it obvious” is more difficult than it sounds when it comes to players, especially if it goes against their expectations.
      Sometimes you might have to explicitly tell them they are likely to lose this fight before they ever consider retreating.

  23. There seems to be several different issues running into each other regarding balance. I’m not sure if you’re complaining about the idea that almost every encounter should have the same success rate, or just that the success rate of 90% is too high for your tastes. If every encounter had a more or less 55% chance of survival for the PCs, would that be less boring, even though they’re all still balanced? Balance is about consistency of difficulty, not the specific difficulty level. Heck, even games like Call of Cthulhu which aim to completely destroy the PCs at the end of the average adventure are balanced, just very strongly against the players. Also, being perfectly balanced does not mean it can be played randomly; just look at Chess, as an archetypal perfectly balanced game. If you want a game that’s less solvable, consider Poker instead. While you do make some good points about balance handcuffing DMs, some of your complaints seem to make more sense if “balanced” is mentally replaced with “easy”.

  24. Great article. I guess by today’s standards, I’m not a great GM…I’ve never really worried about balance, always focused on telling and building a great story with my players. I’ve always been of a mind, if you want balance play a video or computer game, if you want to build a great story where you your character actually evolves beyond just getting more powerful, play a tabletop rpg.

    I have had more than my fair share of characters die, many of which sucked to lose. I never felt screwed when it happened. You’re playing an individual in a group that takes a lot of foolish risks running around and exploring a dangerous world – death happens.

    As a GM, if the monsters have intelligence at the “animal predator” level or higher, they adjust to the group. My players know if they take foolish risks, there is a very real chance, things may not work out in their favor, that their characters can fail or in some instances, die.

    For me, without the risk of genuine failure, without the risk of character death whether through tcrap rolling or poor decisions, what’s the point of playing. I think it is a horrible shame that DND has “evolved” to the point where the game has essentially given players “plot armor”. Again, this is my own view. If you’re having fun, nothing else matters.

  25. One of my favorite campaign encounters was when our 15th level characters were turned into children and one of us into a hamster and placed in a classroom and we had to figure out how to escape with only indestrutable papyrus, a flask of liquor, 2 lock picks, 1 small knife, 1 bear trap, and a skeleton named Bonely Bonerson. With a locked desk and only one locked door out of the room. Rube goldberg level machinations ensured and we died 28 before we managed to escape.

  26. I think there is a disconnect between what Angry is try to say in this article and what people are interpreting from in regards to rolling stats vs point buy. I don’t think the example 100% fits the argument, but what comes to mind is that point buy appeals to expression players, letting them choose exactly how they want their character to emerge, and rolling stats appeals to discovery players, like trying to uncover what type of person a certain stat array says. For me personally, I would roll 3d6 any day of the week and If I get a 5 or 6 stat then hey, guess I have to deal with it. Though concessions should be made if you roll 3 5s and 2 9s.

  27. Will you ever review DCC as a system? I’d be interested in your opinion about mighty deeds and the spellcasting system.

  28. It’s interesting to read you talk about how balance. Our group doesn’t play D&D, usually we play games where there’s no concept like CR. Building encounters and adventures for those systems is a nightmare. The GM is left guessing what a suitable challenge will be – and the players left guessing at how well the GM guessed. One recent example saw the GM realise after one combat round that the “big bad” was capable of crushing the PCs and inflicting a TPK in just two more rounds, so decided to make it “show its disdain” for us by stopping attacking and removing its helmet (so we could shoot it in the head). In other words, the GM threw the fight, deliberately. It sucked.

    (Should we players have realised the “big bad” was too powerful and approached it differently? Sure, maybe. But we, and the GM, thought it was a “PCs are the heroes and the heroes can expect to win” game. By the time we all worked out it wasn’t, we were facing a TPK. Not the end of the world, but the other players would have hated it.)

    I’ve read so many of your articles talking about CR and how D&D has an expectation for what should be in its encounters and what players can handle, and I’ve thought, “I wish these other games provided something like that”. Some way to at least know whether a given encounter will be easy or hard. Hard is OK, as long as it’s intentional. Without a way to balance it – not necessarily to *achieve* balance, but to know *what the balance will be*, even if that’s unbalanced! – it’s too easy to end up in unsatisfying situations.

    To put it another way, I don’t mind having to prepare creative ways to win a climactic fight – in fact that sounds like fun. But I need to know I need to. It’s not worth expending time and mental energy on invisibility spells and bags of flour, when this is just one combat encounter of six the GM has planned for the session and he’s really just expecting me to roll initiative and kill the bad guys. And *he* will only know whether a fight can be resolved with some basic attacks and a healing potion, or a plan of unparalleled creativity, if the game gives him a clue. Something like CR, perhaps. Something to help him balance the encounter… or unbalance it, deliberately.

  29. The only balance that really matters is inter party. As long as everyone can contribute meaningfully and is having fun that matters. I have had a super tanky dwarf take 150 damage in one blow from a god and not blink and ask him if thats all hes got, paired with a wizard who metamagiced enough to one shot near everything up to 2 above cr, and it worked fine, i was a targetting beacon. I have also had a harbringer who was the only in combat contributor and felt like i was overshadowing everyone because no one else had any relevant combat abilities, but dm was running a combat heavy module so the other players mostly twiddled their thumbs. That was problematic. With the more heavily combat focus games like d&d, in combat everyone needs to be at least competent in that field and certain classes have not been and that is an issue.

  30. I’ve been thinking about the subject of “game balance” between characters for a few hours now. I think the reason I generally prefer a planned points-buy character over a roll generated character is because RPGs are about making choices, so it sticks in my craw that I’m not allowed to choose the manifestation of the character’s abilities right out of the gate.
    It also would probably better for the discussion if people defined what they mean when they generate characters with rolls. I know a lot of groups will generate scores and then freely assign them to attributes. That’s distinctly different from rolling for each attribute specifically, which is how I always understood the “old school” approach to be. As a person that usually has a great idea of a character concept I want to play, the old school approach shoehorns me into playing characters I didn’t want to play. With freely assigning scores to attributes, I’ve always felt like you may as well just use an array or points-buy. There’s not much difference.
    I agree with some other posts that state that players make too much out of stats. Many players do make too big of a thing about it. But if it’s something where a player can control it and make decisions about it, I want to give them that chance to make those decisions.

    • I’m a big fan, personally, of 3d6 down-the-line. I can see that for you, coming in with a concept you want to play, 3d6DtL would be inherently unfun. I’m more like Azure and someone else said above: perfectly happy to have some random stats and even race and class and equipment handed to me, and learn to know the character through play. So point-buy or an array throw a bunch of choices onto me at chargen that I don’t want to be making then and don’t have the information to make then.

      Luckily, every table I’ve played at’s big enough for a multiplicity of types. I’ve heard tell of tables that won’t function well if not everyone’s at the same optimization level, but I count myself lucky to have avoided them.

  31. Regarding GM’s designing challenges that the players should win- a paraphrase of what you wrote in the letter to players, “act logically as the character would…”; well, would characters accept challenges they didn’t think they could win? Reading between the lines of your articles over the years, it seems that there are GM’s who hate this idea, and consider it a form of “RailRoading”; Like it would be logical that if you turn right there are level 1 monsters, but turn left and there are level 9 monsters. High level challenges should be hard to find, and only high level characters should have the wherewithal to travel to such places. What do you call a town with lots of high level monsters close by? The answer is “Ruins”. In regards to believability, it really does make sense that the monsters would level as the players, if the players are starting at a safe place…

    • But if you extend that further, there is a degree of predictability as to where the most dangerous monsters will be found. Heavily patrolled areas near major centers are relatively safe, but if you venture into the swamp, or stray further from those centers, you can expect to encounter tougher monsters with better treasure. So players can play it safe, or push their luck and try to get bigger rewards.

      But within a region there is variability, which will include a few outliers that are tougher or weaker than usual. Monsters raiding from another region, for example.

      Also remember, a tough monster does not have to be treated as a combat encounter. You can avoid it, sneak by it, trick it, talk to it, or leave it alone and come back when you are higher level. In 1e it was possible to randomly encounter 30-300 orcs during overland travel, at any level. When you meet 300 orcs at first level, that isn’t a combat encounter, its a village to infiltrate.

  32. It’s like people have this reluctance to *play* the game, and instead fill much of the session time with *talking* about playing the game. It’s like players create this interesting character concept they want to see fully realised, but doubt that they can actually achieve that concept by, you know, playing the game.

    So they hyperfocus on lengthy backstories, on long-winded discussions in-character, on “all-RP” sessions, on feeling proud about not rolling die or doing any combat.

    It reminds me of bad tv shows. They constantly string you along with hints and vague foreshadowing that *one day,* we *promise*, if you just keep watching long enough, then something amazing will happen and all those teases we’ve been giving you the past three seasons will lead to an ultimate conflict and a satisfying conclusion…

    And then the show never gets there. Because it’s incredibly difficult to follow through on a promise like that. And pretty much impossible for a GM to give the player exactly the direction they wanted for the character, without being a foregone conclusion, and satisfyingly addressing & resolving all the various threads the character brings up.

    And it rarely occurs to them that they could have avoided it all – the time-wasting, the disappointing conclusion, the pfaffing about – if they just focused more on PLAYING THE DAMN GAME. Go on adventures, tackle encounters, get bloodied and bashed about, maybe die. Just like good tv shows don’t get staying power by promising something great is coming up “one day,” but by focusing on telling good stories *right now,* good characters are shaped through playing, not by talking and talking and talking and talking…

    • I wonder if that has something to do with people not being able to game as often as they’d like (or not being able to find regular groups), so instead they engage with the game the only way they can: by writing backstory and planning their progression.

      Just a thought.

  33. You know, maybe I’m wildly off here, but it sounds like you’re saying that the design philosophy of old-school D&D was a lot like roguelikes, at least in the way they approached death, randomness, balance, and character generation. That would actually make a lot of sense to me in terms of why players approached more strategically; they had less investment in each individual character, and because of that they knew the DM was more willing to kill PCs for mistakes. They knew their character was “allowed” to die for stupid reasons, unlike in more linear games.

    Treating the game this way though does have one issue, in that generally roguelikes are supposed to have really low investment in each run. And I really don’t see how to do that with a ttrpg, at least without resorting to a series of one-shots. It seems like a lot of the ways D&D has developed in its approach to balance is about making sure that players don’t lose their characters for dumb reasons, which in turn allowed more investment, which deepened the cycle. To get out of that cycle, it seems like you’d have to either commit hard to making players lose over relatively minor mistakes, or find a different way to punish characters besides death.

    • Well, if you assume time flows forward instead of backward, it’s actually that Rogue was an attempt to capture the D&D dungeon crawling experience in a computer game. And that’s not an accident

      • Oh right. I’m really too young to be talking about Rogue, I keep forgetting that there are games _predate_ things with ASCII graphics. Regardless of order, I think you still end up with the same basic conflict between attachment and danger.

    • OD&D _did_ have a very low investment in characters. Character creation took, like, 2 minutes. Maybe 5 minutes, tops, including purchasing equipment. You just rolled one up and went adventuring.

      Attachment came after you survived a while. Characters got interesting precisely because of what they’d done and what they’d survived.

      Several years ago as a diversion my group all created AD&D characters and went adventuring using the random dungeon generation tables in the back of the AD&D DMG. We died like flies, and it was glorious. One character was the lone survivor of an attack by a flock of stirges and he reached I think 3rd level, and then it was like everyone else’s characters from then on were basically his hirelings. Until some bandits managed to kill him… You’d grind through two or three new characters in a session. (IIRC we all generated 6 characters up-front so we’d have a deep bench to go to.)

      As Angry says, the systems in OD&D and AD&D were a mess, but the gameplay was still fun.

  34. Without going into any of the other good points mentioned in this post, I would like to strongly support the idea that a DM should build encounters the way they want, and let players figure out how hard they are. I experimented with this, and within 5E, my best results came thusly: the entire campaign went better when the party’s first fight was essentially unwinnable. They HAD to run.

    For the first success, it was a party of experienced 3.5e players, and they did what such players do…they assumed. So when a ported war troll started shipping 5th level players into unconsciousness, they kept assuming. It’s just bad rolls, they said. They even briefly wondered if the DM was doing his job right. And then it all hit them. And they ran like hell.

    They were mad. They had no loot. And as they watched that place disappear into the distance, they learned. In 6 more levels, they have not once believed a fight would be easy. They look for traps everywhere. They work so much better as a team. In short, they fear death. They RP like people who could die any day. And it’s goddamn great.

    If you have a broader concern with modern roleplaying games, I would believe it to be this: the game lets you roleplay everything well, except a fear of death. It is not real. The game is literally designed to not kill players. Should that happen every time? No. But shit, why do they even call you an adventurer, if you always win? If there is anything that makes a mortal character real, it is a fear of failure and death. So, as a DM, do not fear it. Embrace it. You’re the DM. If they are too sad about death, use it to make your story come to life with the idea of looming death. Board games are easy, you can always play again. RPGs shouldn’t be. Your character does not respawn if you lose. Make it lethal, and let the reality of that build your world.

  35. On balance: I agree that it’s not that important. I do think your encounter example is a bit skewed however to what you think games ought to be like. If you like ‘death is always waiting’ games with the potential for high character body count unless the players match or exceed your ideas of an encounter, that’s fine. Not everybody does though. I run encounters designed to be beatable because I want to run games about valiant heroes. If my players negotiate, it’s because they believe an opponent isn’t so bad as to require defeat. If my players avoid a battle, it’s only so they can rest or get gear that will aid them in returning to face it. As heroes, it’s their duty to face threats the regular folk can’t. In the topic of character generation, the reason players from older systems focused on character deeds is generally because there were no meaningful options for most characters, and characters tended to be nearly identical mechanically. In AD&D2e, a 10 lv Human Fighter was not noticeably different from a 10 lv Dwarven Fighter. They might have different equipment, and different stats, but they played the same. Every Fighter that you made played the same. So people have to talk about experiences of a character to have any hope of differentiating. To that end, I’m glad players can talk about mechanics to describe a character, because it means they had choices to make about the character, and the character could be different from others.

    • I agree.
      I’m able to charge valiantly into combat and play the hero precisely because I know the risk is artificially lowered.
      If death was lurking around every corner, I’d be far too terrified to be a real adventurer. I’d feel like a coward because I don’t want to die.

      This is also the reason I support easy access to resurrection spells, because then you can “risk death” without any serious consequences. You could even have monsters go for the kill in a more “realistic” fashion without the players having to make new characters.

      • What’s valiant or heroic about rushing into a fight that likely won’t hurt or kill you? That’s not courage or heroism. If you like being able to do what you want without fear that it might cost you something, neat. Don’t pretend that’s not just playing a coward who knows he’s safe.

        • I guess my point is that I want to “act” heroic without actually being heroic, because real heroism gets you killed.

          But then I get very attached to my characters, which I admit can be a problem.

          • Yes, exactly. It can be a problem. I mean, if a GM forced an outcome on you because that’s the outcome he demanded, regardless of your choices, you’d call that railroading. But you’re forcing an outcome on the entire game with the idea that your character is sacred and should not be at risk. Moreover, you want it so that you can play your character as if they aren’t at risk. And you – the player – know that. You know your character might make a different decision than the one you’re making based on the plot armor you want to wear. Being protected from the consequences of your choices so you can make choices that you wouldn’t otherwise make? That’s not role-playing anymore. That’s just escapist fantasy fulfillment. That’s writing a novel. It ceases to be a game if you want to be shielded from the risks. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but it’s not a great way to argue about how the game should be designed.

          • Though I agree with Angry’s response below, I must say I sympathise with players like you. I have three players out of five that I suspect would be devestated if their character died, to the point that they probably wouldn’t play again.

            Heck, I had one player fall out with another because her beast companion died.

            People get ridiculously attached to their first characters, and I hate knowing that I’ll never recreate that investment if that character dies.

  36. I agree that the notion of balance is a fool’s errand. What should be providing any sense of “balance” is the cleverness of the players in deciding what to do when an encounter pops up. Run, hide, parley, fight?

    I’ve not played any version of D&D beyond AD&D 2e. I took a look at 3ed and realized the munchkins had won the battle for the RPG market. We went from heroic fantasy to superhero fantasy with that edition change, where character simply traded tights and capes for heavily-stylized armor and boots. The superpowers were just renamed. Players were enabled to no longer place themselves in the place of somewhat exceptional denizen of a setting scrambling to succeed, but to expect that their characters should be able to excel in every situation encountered without the player having to work hard to do so. The days of expecting players to develop skills ended then.

    Players made characters unique. It wasn’t a special class of any sort, nor any combination of superpowers–excuse me, feats–that worked to make a character special. It was the way the character was played. No set of choices about abilities would result in a character automatically being the most unique, special snowflake in the galaxy; the player had to step up and play a memorable character.

  37. A few things: on “static characters being a no-no”, flat character arcs are a thing and characters like Conan and Doc Savage knew who they were from the onset. From there, it’s less about the change in the character and the change the character impresses upon the world, which I think is old school by design.

    I think it’s the character abilities at fault mostly for the modern way of thinking. Character identity used to be tied to magical swag and where they got it. Now, it’s more focused on the abilities that their levels will give (feats too). It’s assumed and there is a general lack of discovery and random in 5e. A character used to have to settle with what they found. They might not find a magic longsword for their paladin, they might find a +2 khopesh, and they rocked that khopesh. Now, it’s more focused on character abilities. 3e and 4e, character abilities got more apparent, but magic items were mandatory, mostly at mid and later levels. Now, 5e touts bounded accuracy, so magic items aren’t as important or as enticing as abilities characters get for leveling up.

    D&D, in my opinion, is/was a loot based system, so the goal was to adventure to find cool swag and that swag had a history because you went and adventured for it. 5e is more focused on what your character can do at level 6 or 9 rather than the wonder of what you could find in that tomb, so leveling up is the lure for adventure, making 5e players focus on the character build, prioritizing it.

    My two cents, anyway.

  38. Last year sometime on the Digressions & Dragons podcast, you and Fiddleback expressed some confusion about the OSR scene. It’s kinda funny to see you expressing some of their sentiments, now.

    The OSR is big on “don’t worry about balance,” for basically all of the reasons you’ve outlined here. They also go a step further and suggest decoupling experience from encounters, and making 1 GP = 1 XP instead. The logic goes that, since you don’t actually /get/ anything from fighting monsters, you have more reason to not actually fight them. Better to sneak around them, or work out some sort of barter, or something.

    I don’t have a great segue into this bit, so whatever, but I also wanted to mention your bit about how monster CRs don’t always line up with the DMG’s suggested proccess for building monsters.

    Blog of Holding did a series of articles (ending with http://blogofholding.com/?p=7338, which has links to the previous articles) that did a statistical analysis of all the monsters in the Monster Manual. There’s some really solid trends there, with most deviations from them being relatively minor… and a lot of them aren’t reflected in the DMG’s monster creation guides. It’s like the guys making the monsters actually did hew pretty close to some formulae, and then the guys writing the DMG tried to reverse-engineer that and didn’t get it /quite/ right.

    • Yes, it’s interesting to watch this evolving into an OSR blog 🙂

      I do sympathise with a lot of the OSR principles, but the single most obsession I don’t get is the gold=xp. Yes xp for killing is stupid, but so is xp for gold. I don’t want every character to be either a murderer or a gold digger. Neither wants my players, and trying to motivate them with promises of loot and treasure is hopeless. That’s not why they play.

      I want to reward players with xp for getting things done! Usually I summarize what the party has achieved at the end of the session, and hand out xp for each point using expert judgement based on subjective criteria. Works well enough for me, balance not being everything, but I can see why people might want a more rigorous method. Perhaps a job for Angry, being more narratively inclined than most in the OSR?

      • GP=XP is like a quest award. It is a proxy for the experience you gained in reaching accomplishment, regardless of the approach you took in doing so. If treasure is the goal, why should you get significantly more XPs for fighting to get the treasure than for talking/sneaking/tricking your way into getting the treasure, at lower risk?

        Ultimately the intention is to achieve a different playstyle, rather than being simulationist. Although, in a game that includes a skill system, it may be a better simulation of how you got better at diplomacy, for example, than if you improved your diplomacy by bashing orcs on the head.

        • “If treasure is the goal, ”
          Commonly, that’s not the goal. The goal is to get the macguffin, rescue the hostage, infiltrate and get the secret intel, escape, depose the king, solve the murder mystery, uncover the secret conspiration, etc…

          At least for my group, treasure is it’s own reward, and there fore tying xp to it is kind of redundant.

          • Right, but then you can grant XPs for achieving the goal. The point is, if XPs from combat are reduced and XPs for goal achievement are increased, players are no longer encouraged to use combat as the solution to every problem.

          • I agree with the goal orientated xp system. If your goal is to clear out the dungeon, then combat xp is great. If your goal is to rescue the princess before the ritual is complete, then a starting pool of XP that dwindles on each rest or time consuming activity is better.

            If the players want to level up, and you want them to be invested in your story, link XP to story.

    • As someone who listened to that episode recently, I must say Angry was pretty clear that he had previously kinda of dismissed the OSR movement as “nostalgia” for old mechanics but recently has been finding some common ground with them on a couple issues after reading more about it.

      Didn’t strike me as confused there.

      After following that rabbit hole myself, I think its pretty clear this is not just taken from “the OSR” (whose “members” dont really seem to agree on all that much stuff anyways) but rather the fact that reading people with some insights about the game is helping him go about developing on criticisms about the game that he had already voiced here, some of which are also present in this article.

  39. Thank you!
    You hit the nail on the head with almost everything after that first bit about toxicity and inclusion.
    Balance is BS. Adventures shouldn’t be well balanced. A diet should be well balanced. And adventure should be scary sometimes. Sometimes there’s a troll orgy and it’s best to just let them have at it than get slaughtered by pissed off, horny, nude trolls!
    Character generation should be just the beginning. You should have an endgame in mind for your character. Kinda like real life. Where ya wanna be, who you wanna be, and what you wanna do.
    I do like the backstory component of 5e and a lot of the scaled back mechanics, but sometimes characters die because players do stupid things and sometimes you change your characters path because the game can lead you down some seriously messed up paths.
    In the game, like life, your every decision can end up changing who you or your character are.
    We don’t have to agree about everything and that’s good. Disagreement and discussion bring about better, more informed solutions to problems big or small.
    I DM a lot of Homebrew 5e. I use craftmanship and quality of materials for all items. Weapons have a life expectancy if they are not cared for, etc. I also have half a million races and classes with multiple paths you can follow. But sometimes, I just bullshit it all. Just write a basic outline with how I want my NPCs to sound and any important info they should know and just let everything else be a random roll of the die.

  40. I feel that 4e and up play almost like a video game than a table top rpg. Some of the best stories and moments for me is when we though outside the box, and won the day with some crazy plan. Or modules that made you think instead of being a murder hobo. (Salmarsh set anyone).

  41. I don’t think PC options or choices are the problem with the game. They’re a problem when it comes to building new characters. But they’re not a problem with the game itself. The problems are twofold:
    1) The longer character generation takes the more risk adverse players will be.
    2) Players are trained to think that the game will be balanced and that they’ll be able to safely overcome those challenges using a d20. If this expectation is not meant then it’s because they have a bad GM and not because they played foolishly.

    #1 is caused by characters having too many choices and mechanics. But it’s also important to play satisfying characters. You can only roll up so many “Fighter #623” before you stop playing fighters and start playing wizards exclusively.

    #2 is caused by organised play and video games (yes. I said it. Video games). Organised play is currently the only form of gaming I’m getting and it’s definitely the cause of players not trying to scout. Because those modules are built to be balanced and the players know this and so they know there’s little to no risk of them being overwhelmed. Sometimes this expectation isn’t meant. But it’s true 99.9999% of the time. Pathfinder Society and Living Forgotten Realms before that also cemented this mentality. So did 3e and 4e and now 5e with it’s guidelines for balanced encounters.

    I don’t know how to combat this problem. Sure, playing a mechanically lean character can be refreshing every now and then. But ultimately it can become quite boring and it’s why so many classes are now spellcasters or have had their spellcasting boosted.

    I don’t think creating mechanically boring characters is a way to fix the game. I do think changing how the game is presented would certainly help in changing how people think of the game. At the moment players are trained to think of situations in terms of ability scores. And when they describe a course of action and the GM adjudicates an ability score they’re bad at, they get frustrated. I actually see this happen on a weekly basis.

    And I think part of the problem is the inability to overcome a low ability score. Ability scores have become so important and the ability to stack bonuses have become so meager that if you have a bad ability score, you’re going to be struggling to overcome at level DCs. This is a player that isn’t saying “I use persuasion” but instead describing their actions, and they’re consistently being punished for it.

    • Thinking further on the ability score adjudication mismatch: I think the problem is that D&D insisted on keeping the mental scores Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. Simply changing them to: Awareness, Persuasion and Knowledge would have been a dramatic improvement.

      Charisma is used for diplomacy, intimidate, handle animal, deception and general “charisma”. All of these are examples of trying to persuade someone. So calling it persuasion would have been much more meaningful and we’d stop people trying to tie it into physical looks.

      Awareness covers your ability to listen, spot things, search a specific area, tracking, and other general looking around. It would also stop it from being tied to nonsensical things like Medicine (Is Doctor Strange particularly Wise? Hell no. Yet he’s a surgeon. Why is medicine wisdom? Because clerics are often trained in medicine and they wanted to make sure there was class synergy. That’s a terrible choice. Give clerics a way to boost their medicine if you must. But don’t tie a skill to a score for no reason).

      Knowledge would obviously cover all of the areas of knowledge including religion, nature, arcana, history, etc. It would stop trying to split perception and investigation into two different stats when really the difference between them is so arbitrary they should be the same. Also if someone says “I want to investigate the mechanical trap to deduce how it functions” then 9 times out of 10 a GM would say “roll a Knowledge check” because knowledge makes sense to be tied to a mechanical object. Similarly if someone says “I use my knowledge of animals to try to calm an animal” then they can get add their proficiency bonus in nature to their persuasion modifier to calm an animal.

      I know that D&D is tied into the six scores and will never change the scores. But the separation of wisdom, intelligence and charisma in the way that 5th edition applies it is really non-intuitive and is probably one of the biggest problems with the edition.

  42. No BS in this article, I fully agree with it.
    As the text and a lot of comments take look at old school gaming I want to hint at the blog post “Drunk, Prone & On Fire (Tactical Transparency)” from Zak Smith (playing D&D with pornstars), but I will not link directly because of the NSFW nature of his blog.
    But a few things mentioned here tie into what he calls tactical transparency and system skill vs. player skill.
    I’m very old school as my experience with D&D specifically ends at AD&D 2nd, but I played a lot of different games and I can see how a system can actually reduce creative approaches to encounters. What you get is mini game of combat inside your game, with specific rules, and if the GM isn’t careful it just shuts down outside options.
    I personally prefer board games and wargames for that type of kick, and try keep my RPGs away from it. It’s like when our Vampire GM brought along a book of optional combat rules and we all voted against using them despite all the shiny stuff. It would simply replace our creative approaches with a set of tactical rules.
    And that is where all the “balance” stuff comes from. Even asymmetric war games need some kind of balance. Otherwise there would be no tension whatsoever. So once the map and minis are in place both sides need a reasonable chance to win. If you add a character generation that takes a lot of time and calls for strong initial investment, you skew the balance in favor of the players to let their characters survive. Especially if there is a strong story that the GM wants to tell with those characters.
    And the players know this, and they start picking fights with everything.
    I don’t think that it HAS to end this way, just don’t pull out the minis too early, maybe have a few fights without a map or minis, give clues about the strength of the monsters and than you can forget about balancing.

  43. This article makes me want to create random character creation rules for D&D.
    And I don’t just mean “roll 1DX for class, roll 1DX for Backgorund, roll 1DX for Race, roll your abilities by first rolling for strength, then rolling for dexterity etc.”
    More like “You grew up in a (roll 1DX for home location), where you were the child of a (roll 1DX for parental profession) etc.”, with each option changing your character’s starting personality and their abilities.

    • That’s close to how you could create a character in the earlier versions of DSA, a german RPG. You would roll or chose on a series of background tables, each background (culture you grew up in, parents, backstory etc.) modifying your skills up or down, and at the end you would get your level 1 freeby points to distribute at will. We tweaked the tables a bit and streamlined it so we could just create a character in a few minutes. It had the freedom of choice and the possibility of surprise by randomness.
      Of course this can result in strange things like the fighter whose family got killed by orcs three times. But hell, that was fun when we ran an adventure that was basically a city under siege by an army of orcs (and vampire running lose inside the walls). The fear, the hatred.

    • 4th edition Heroes of the Feywild had a great background generation that helped tie your character to the setting and establish some pre-adventures.

  44. Thanks. I’ve been flummoxed by D&D since I left the bad old days of AD&D or 2E. 3E and Pathfinder changed it to a purely mechanical system of min-maxing and preplanning, and I do not enjoy that. Unknowns is what drives a story, any story. Being predictable is dessicated and ruinous to any adventure. It’s antithetical to the very concept of “an adventure”.

    How to move D&D into the realm of something exciting as an adventure and not as a variation on a tactical combat sim has left me out in the cold. I miss my days in middle school of never knowing what was around the corner, what crazy schemes me and my friends might come up with to try to win the day, or at least save our own skins 🙂

    I appreciate your rambling thoughts – as that seems to be about all I have anymore. 😛

  45. I think that some of the reason that games like OD&D or Basic D&D were not focused on “combat balance” was that those games were not about combat: they were about exploration. And there is one thing that makes this very clear: the way that you earn XP

    See, in BASIC, the booklet tells you that you earn more XP from getting treasure out of the dungeon than from slaying monsters, and that fighting is aways a BAD idea – you could die, after all! So you had to pick your fights – or only fight when it was inevitable. Otherwise, you’re looking for treasure, an easy route, and a fast way out.

    When 3.0 hit the shelves, though, the paradigm shifted. Now killing mosnters was the “main” mechanic to earn XP. So every combat needed to be “fair”. After all, if the game is about killing monsters, the players should have a chance to do so otherwise where is the fun?

    So when I wanted to had an “old school” adventure using 5e, what I did was cut the “monster XP” to 10% of the listed value at the MM, and made a conversion rate of 1sp – 1 XP. This – with other small modifications, like long rests not replenshing HP and some retreat rules – got the party planning their trips to the dungeon, choosing their fights, and being excited over a treasure chest – something that 5e had never evoked to my players.

    So I think that balance is only as important as you make combat be to the game. If your game is centered on it – like 3.X, 4e and SPECIALLY 5e – then ballance is going to be a bigger issue. If your game is more about getting treasure and making back alive? Well, then the party should really think if messing with the slepping dragon’s hoard is worth it.

    • Just be careful in these discussions not to put the cart before the horse. Often, the mechanics in new editions are a response to the way people are playing. New editions USUALLY don’t shift paradigms, they are in response to paradigm shifts.

      • You’re probably right about the order of things. I started playing D&D around 3rd edition, so I had to work it backwards to see what was different on previous editions, and the GP as XP struck me as something that makes the game feel A LOT different than the ones I had played so far (3.x, 4e and 5e).

        That said, I think that if we’re trying to make the game feel more like the old days, we can look back and see what the system was doing besides having negative AC.

        We can assume that one of the “main” incentive mechanics for players is to “level up”. Leveling feels good, and give you nice bonuses. So the players want to level up. How do they do that?

        Well, in BECMI and AD&D, the character would gain XP by securing treasure. The PLAYERS had this information, so they would make decisions based on how could they get the mos treasure and make it out of the dungeon (alive)

        In 3.x, however, XP and GP were dissociated. Now XP was acquired only (or mainly) by slaying monsters, while GP was built in to a system of purchasing and crafting magic itens. Each corresponded to a different aspect of character evolution, so you could entice a player with a battle or a chest. The “bad” part? Players would now jump in to battles more frequently, so the system had to build a lot of “safeguards” so the character didn’t die easly as in previously editions.


      • (…)

        4E took a shortcurt from the GP-to-Magic Itens conversion system, and now each character was suposed to have an item of its Level +1, one of its Level, and one of its Level -1. But GP still had some value, since you could buy minor magic itens with it. But the incentive was low. The focus of the edition was tactical combat, and it was not shy about it. And as I said, the more an edition focus on combat, the more the balance (or fairness) of the encounter becomes an issue. But at least the game designers of 4E seemed to be aware of that.

        5E is a mess. It ditched out GP AND Magic Itens advancement completely. The only way to advance your character is through combat (if you’re not using any optional rules like milestones, that make the game even more pointless IMO). So the game does not have any built-in incentive for the PLAYERS to go on an adventure other than “story reasons”. And I think that sucks. Why? Well, because it robs them of their agency.

        See, if the players know that they will “level up” (be from GP to XP conversion or by having more resources to make magic itens), they can make a choice about taking an extra job at the tavern, or explore the countryside for lost dungeons, or to make that last run on the lich’s lair in search for hidden treasures. Now it seems that the players are only waiting for the GM to drop the next plot – after all, what choice do they have?

        So if you want to make encounter (combat) balance a lesser issue, I would recomend making the game less about combat. Like in the good old days. That I have never experienced 😀

  46. Before I started running all the time the most fun character I ever played was a 4e character with mostly horrible rolled stats, and one or two decent rolls. The point buy characters characters I’ve played were fine, but they didn’t give me that same feeling that that 4e one did. I don’t think random generation is a good solution to that problem, as the majority of rolled characters I’ve played end up with stats similar to those point buy ones, or worse, are unbalanced in a way that doesn’t encourage that creativity and experimentation I felt.
    I sometimes wondered if the issue isn’t with the nature of point buy, but with how point buy systems are set up to make balanced characters. Like in 5e the 15 cap on point buy make it so point buy characters are always ok, but not great or bad at things. And in 4e you couldn’t have more than one stat below ten in point buy. They want point-buy characters to be balanced and not min-maxed, but I think a point buy system that didn’t care so much about that, with a little testing could lead to a system that incentivizes characters to be like how that one 4e character felt.
    One other experiment I’ve considered is just giving all the players the same weird standard array of stats and seeing how they play. Off the top of my head something like a 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, and 18.

    • In my experience, min-maxed characters are always the most fun to roleplay.
      Being exceptionally good at some things and comically bad at others is incredibly satisfying and really helps define who you are and explore the consequences of what you can and can’t do.

  47. I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for a little while now, and it seems to lock into your pounderings of character creation and development during the entire story, so perhaps it can help you to tune in on a critical point. It is a short level zero session at the start of all else. Now, before you start yelling at me for all the things that are wrong with this idea and how you hate character creation sessions and such, bear with me for just a moment. Level zero is the common days before a PC becomes a special/unique character. With just the basics: race, stats and a very minimal background as a commoner. Blacksmith apprentice, woodcutter, dealer in artefacts, happy bachelor hobbit, regular soldier trainee, village youth, nothing special just yet. Then adventure comes calling and urges you to make a few simple choices to deal with an uncommon challange. Based on those few choises you become level 1 in something, because you’ve discovered a talent or an interest in a profession. Moving from there, you wish to improve those abilities and so you abandon your old life.
    Now, this doesn’t have to happen during a gaming session with the GM, players could just play this out in their minds or with one another because that usually provides a nice twist of inspiration. Often, they do this already, albeit unknowingly, which results in their elaborate backgrounds. It could even be that the first challange is what brings the party in the same place and in touch with one another for all the future events.

    Anyway, I think this tries to seperate character creation into two main phases, first how the PC is born (physical) and secondly what profession it will covet (psyche). You have the freedom in the second phase to make a choise after a little test drive, just like in real life.
    Like you often say Angry, a lot of players seem too narrowminded for intellectual thought, because half of the time, players seem to regret the choise(s) they made for their first two levels and promptly choose to multiclass when they feel their PC turns stale. The wiser ones already seem to do so anyway.

    • 4e experimented with something like that in one of the online Dragon magazines. It sort of reminds me of playing as a 3e npc class. Instead of a class, you would have a power source like martial or arcane which would give you an idea of what you wanted to do. It had a module for it in Dungeon 194 where you were all orphans, which I liked thematically a lot. I was going to start a campaign with it for some new player, but it never ended up coming together.
      I thought it might be interesting for new players; teach them the freedom of an rpg through scarcity before giving them all the resources a 1st-level 4e character would have.

      • A friend of mine once ran a 4E advenure where we started with Companion sheets (I think that they were introduced at the DMG 2). In the story, the main villain had banished all heroes from existence, so there were literraly no one with class levels. Only when an entity came to us to go back in time and restore the power of the heroes was that we could play with or Epic-Level characters.

        My minotaur managed to score a critical hit on the BBG while still using his companion stats, so when we finally managed to get to him again i was PUMPED to get to him and say: REMEMBER ME?

        I was awesome. It also broke our group apart because one of the players didn’t like having his power taken away. So I think that it was an improvement all around

  48. Love the idea of just making a character based on what you rolled. I’ve been playing since “blue book” D&D, and am actually playing a 5e campaign as a player instead of DM for the first time since the 80s. And my babbling is very much of the “war story” variety, sprinkled with a few “how the heck can my wizard have 15 HP by 3rd level” gripes to illustrate how much harder D&D used to be to play, as us old people say.

    Anyway, unlike the other players in our group, I’m already thinking about what my next character would be, assuming my current one’s going to die eventually, because that’s how D&D works. (That chance got reduced after one player, who treated this like a video game in which every single battle is winnable, despite our warnings, charged in one last time, got killed, and ragequit. Even after all of us tried to talk to him, he’s not coming back, because he believes the DM should’ve somehow saved him even after all his bad choices.) And I’ve decided I’m going to let the dice dictate my character.

    As for backstory, I know at least part of it, because the same thing you observed in your article occurred to me a couple weeks ago: “I mean, I know that one fool from WotC recently said you can’t make a D&D PC without a tragic backstory on Twitter.”

    So my idea is this: my character’s traveled the land in blissful ignorance and never had a bad day in his life. But, he has unwittingly contributed to the tragic backstory of every other character in the party. Your village got burned to the ground? Come to think of it, those looked a lot like salamander eggs. I probably shouldn’t have left them there. Your wife got murdered? I guess the arsenic in the store i worked at does kind of look like sugar. That quest to recover your family’s magic sword? That explains why your father paid me a bunch of money to unload his ship. i should’ve paid more attention to what storage crate went to which warehouse.

    Not exactly sure how the DM will tie it all into his world in a way that’ll make the party want to do something besides murder me, but I’m curious to find out. Perhaps he’s got a Big Bad out there somewhere who used my idiot character to carry out his foul deeds, and i’ll gain redemption with my newfound friends by joining their quest to right my wrongs. We’ll see.

    Love the articles. Keep ’em up!

  49. Comments on this post are starting to get a little combative, defensive, and rude. When I have to do this much moderation, I usually just decide it’s easier to close the comments for a post.

    Do you hear what I’m saying?

  50. I think a lot of the obsession with encounter (as opposed to character or whatever) balance comes from the move in modern games to stories that are, to a greater or lesser extent, directed by the DM. Earlier megadungeons and hexcrawls allowed you to pick your fights, since there was often little narrative drive created by the DM.
    If your game involves following the story planned by the DM, and you have to get through some particular encounter to progress, as you yourself have pointed out, that encounter must be winnable, or the DM has to be willing to accept that the failure of the entire adventure hangs on the outcome of a single encounter. And even if, through better adventure design, the DM manages to create various paths to success, and accepts failure as an option, and plans for it, the default assumption is still that the players will win, and so it still seems important that encounters are ‘balanced’.

    • I should also say that I am now using an almost completely random character generation system. Race and background are rolled randomly, with tables created to mirror the distribution of races and backgrounds in the world (well, the race table makes non-human races more likely than they really ought to be, because, if completely true to my world, something like 90% of players would have human characters, and the players didn’t like that idea). Ability scores are rolled 3d6 straight down (with the caveat that an average score of under 10, after racial bonuses are applied allows you to reroll). Players then get to pick a class based on the scores they have, and trade in two points in one score to increase another by one (with a lower limit of 8 and upper limit of 16).
      I initially had quite some resistance to the system, but I did manage to persuade the players to give it a go, and we have come up with some race-class combinations that would usually be completely unheard of, and some pretty memorable characters along the way. That said, given the high lethality of the campaign, I do find that it tends to be those players who got lucky with rolls whose characters tend to survive, leading to the long-lasting characters being the more stereotypical ones. The main benefit therefore seems to have been that the players are playing races and classes outside of their usual comfort zones, and many are actually discovering that they like play-styles that they would never have considered before. I’d definitely recommend giving something like this a try, particularly if you happen to have a high character turnover in your game.

  51. I think I’d be interested in a system where there’s no Class, just ‘Feat’-type things that you can choose at each level to develop a character.

  52. I agree on all 3 points of “bullshit”.

    In fact i agree so strongly that i hope you manage to find a solution to the problems of balance (beyond what i do. I merely make all my encounters “Deadly”) and character stasis. I will be looking forward to it.

    Good luck and keep up the good work!

  53. Pingback: Power Level 0 | The Gish Roleplay

  54. RE Game Balance: Having survived a long sandbox Pathfinder campaign that was very much not balanced, I find that a consistent choice of balance is important. That game swung all over the place and felt like it punished players for making choices that weren’t optimized for important moments. The way I DM isn’t particularly combat heavy, so I like to use combat as a straightforward victory to break up the complicated political and social problems my game focuses on. I try to keep combat level balanced so I can get more out of each fight in terms of tone/emotion/etc.
    RE players and random character creation: I started with Pathfinder; DM 5e solely. I’ve noticed players fall on a spectrum between actor (sticks to backstory alone, will not deviate) to improv (rolls and does whatever the dice say). The “actor” players also have a tendency to make the most characters outside of game, just to make characters. It is fun for them, which I am not going to stomp on. I love narrative and arcs, and I’ve found that I can do a lot to encourage dynamism by having their NPCs act independently. Payers who have a certain headspace about a character will react to something in that character’s status quo changing, and then I have created a character arc, however small, where there was none. Some players are not going to let themselves be pushed out of their comfort zone during character creation, and I’m not going to push them. Sitting at the table is the primary way to engage with D&D, but it’s not the only way.

  55. Just trying to guess what is the underlying “bigger issue” linking everything you expose here… Part of me feels it has something to do with how you criticized the current GM disempowerment trend common in many systems. But it doesn’t seem its just that.

    However, I guess there is some argument to be made here about how the transformation of DnD has took away elements that are empowering the game as a way to make stories emerge from play. Like, that it’s becoming more a game of story telling than story building.

    I can see how this would relate with what you write about character creation. Characters are more defined by their creation process than trough play, so it tends to encourage linear progression rather than a cumulative process of transformation. Also, the more a character is defined at the begging of the game, the more it encourage to see the game as a way to tell its story rather than discover it.

    On the other side of the screen, the GM jobs may seems more oriented around making appropriate challenges for those characters. But what is “appropriate challenge”? Challenge the party is expected to overcome? And, more specifically, to overcome without having to suffer too big of a loss, or having to dramatically redefine themselves in the process. From that point of view, it seems logical more and more GMs see the balance as such an important thing: it codify which challenge they are “supposed” to present their players.

    So, it gets to them to tell a story filled with challenges of an adequate difficulty, that characters overcome as a way to tell their story. That, however, seems to limit how story may organically emerge from a campaign. It seems like what you try to pin down here is how, hidden deep inside DnD, some core assumption has changed about what kind of story device TTRPGs are.

    As a GM, most of my fun come from creating conflicts, and not knowing how players will chose to resolve them. And my greatest games come from when they chose to make those huge, campaign-changing moves. Conflicts, choices, consequences: that’s what makes those great stories. DnD can still do that, but you won’t learn that by reading the PHB or the DMG.

  56. I agree, Angry. It’s part of why I’ve never much liked class-based leveled progression.

    I think it was the Marvel RPG, like 2nd or 3rd edition that included a system whereby you took note of significant scenes that defined your character, and when you wanted to level up you had to use one of those to explain the next ability you gained or upgraded.

    There’s another game where you don’t level up until your character’s in a dramatic tight spot and you can attempt to “push” past their limits, and if you succeed it opens up a new evolution of your ability.

    After my first real attempt at making a classless system, however, I quickly discovered what classes do well; they inspire players with ideas and tease lore about that world and how they might fit inside it. I think a good mix of class-based inspiration and a la carte progression is the Iron Kingdoms RPG, where you choose two professions to start, but select the abilities you wish from their lists as you go, even gaining access to new professions down the road. It’s not perfect but it’s helped shape my ideas for the system I’m working on now.

  57. Combat was more simple in the “war game” rules because the war game evolved out of strategy games, not sport games.

    Playing sports is fun and people enjoy balanced teams on both sides.

    Playing war is fun and people enjoy finding ways to obtain overwhelming unfair power.

    Goblins in a cave? Hire enough peasants and get them crossbows and then plug up the cave and smoke them out. Or hire workers to dig out a trench from the nearby river and flood the cave.

    The further you get into simulating a virtual world, the more warfare gameplay you get. Why are goblins only attacking in X number, why are we getting a chance to rest every X number of fights?

    In OSR it isn’t just the text in the book that says “being an adventurer is dangerous”, the gameplay itself tells you that it is dangerous by killing characters.

    Players that like a sandbox to go out and explore/exploit enjoy war, players that like the combat mini-game with some lite choose-your-own-adventure story enjoy sport.

  58. This was an interesting post. I picked up a copy of the Conan RPG, and there’s a bit at the beginning where it talks about the nature of the game world:

    “The weird non-human creatures one meets must often be fled from rather than simply battled. On several occasions Conan elects to abandon any chance at a staggering bounty rather than be destroyed by its dreadful guardians. The wise adventurer should consider doing the same.”

    The thing that struck me about this is how out of place it is in the modern “encounters should be balanced” viewpoint. But I’ve noticed the same thing that other GMs have: modern players tend to simply murderize everything, because the game is set up to let them expect that, and to reward that expectation. D&D gives experience for defeating monsters, so defeat monsters is what players want to do. The result is an expectation of a game world that’s sort of like an MMO. Players consciously go into a zone appropriate for their level, and they fight fights that have been selected to be level appropriate.

    I’m about to start a new 5e campaign. I’ve drawn away from standard XP for the past ten years or so – I award levels or experience based on solving problems or accomplishing things; for having an impact on the world. With this one, I think I’ll draw away from the idea of supplying balanced encounters, as well. Everything my players need to evaluate how tough a fight could be are already there – I’ll announce things like “Oooo, boy, this looks like it will be tough” – so they have the tools they need to make informed decisions. It’ll be interesting to see how this goes.

  59. I appreciate some of what this article is saying, but I disagree that rolled stats helps it at all.

    The thing is that the rules have become so codified (and largely this started at 3E, and just lived on), that everyone has adapted this mindset of only looking at their abilities. And this is really a lot on the GMs, because most GMs I’ve played with, you try something creative and you get screwed over. He makes some conservative ruling where the effect of what you did ends up being less than just doing your basic rules powers, so you pretty much learn to not bother being creative and play it like a board game. Narrative doesn’t matter, common sense doesn’t matter. There are numbers, there is the chessboard, and there are the rules. That is all.

    This wasn’t true before 3E, where largely DMs would heavily reward creativity. So the guy drenching himself in water would get a decent bonus against fire in an old-school game, where as the modern attitude is “If it doesn’t say it on page XXX, then go screw yourself.” Okay… they don’t literally say it that way, but that’s the message they convey.

    Rolled stats won’t change that though,at least not in a vacuum. Having low intelligence as a wizard just means you’re a terrible wizard. It doesn’t auto-magically make your creative ad-hoc actions better and more useful, because your DM is still going to run it as a post-3E style game. All you’ve done is make yourself an inferior chess piece on the board, and nobody wants to be a pawn when they can be a queen.

    The best way to break out of the modl is to try running something like Dungeon World or another narrative game. It doesn’t have to replace D&D entirely as your main game, but if you want to get people thinking creatively again, you must take away their rules and chessboard. You need to get them thinking in terms of narrative descriptions over numbers, mechanics and board squares. And that goes doubly for the DM, who needs to start making rulings based on common sense and the narrative instead of always looking for a specific rule to grant him the power to do something. Modern DMs are greatly in need of deprogramming.

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