21 January 2015

On the Special Snowflake GM

If you haven't read through the "On the Special Snowflake Setting" by the irreplaceable Courtney Campbell, you should. He goes over a number of problems more eloquently than I would and I pretty much agree with every statement, so I'm not going to bother adding more.

I just want to offer some practical advice.

If you look, his examples start with "Does anybody have any feedback?" and that's a great question if your players are all comfortable with each other and have a reasonably open relationship. But not all games are like that, and not all people are like that. I've personally found that a lot of people I've ran games for have serious reservations about giving feedback for fear of "complaining" or "being negative." [1]

Far more effective for me than a blanket statement to the whole group is individually sought feedback. People that might not answer a call for "anybody's" feedback will almost certainly answer if you ask specifically for theirs.

A quick example of how both approaches play out for my current group:

DM: Does anybody have any feedback?
Players: ...
DM: ...Really, nobody has any feedback?
Joe: No, everything's good!
DM: There's really nothing you have to say? I'm completely open here, I'm looking to improve.
Steve: Well, yeah, what he said.
DM: Alright, well, see you next week, then!


Not exactly productive. But if you ask each player individually:

DM and Player A via IM
DM: So what did you think about last week's session?
Joe: Oh, it was alright. It was frustrating not being able to damage those guys, though. That one guy took like seven hits and was still alive! [2]
DM: Oh yeah, well, I did get a couple of lucky rolls and plus you know that kind of armor has damage resistance against your weapon type.
Player A: I guess, but still, it was frustrating, especially since they couldn't really damage me, either. You know that NPCs can also have Option X and Option Y...
Cue cooperative NPC creation theorycrafting

Or another example:
DM and Player B via IM
DM: Hey, what did you think about the session last week?
Steve: Oh yeah, it was fine.
DM: Just fine?
Steve: Yeah, I thought the story was going to be different- I created a character for Plot X and it ended up being Plot Y, and I'm not enjoying being in the jungle!
DM: What do you mean?
Steve: Well me and Player C are really urban, you know, like we're from cities and are used to grifting and stealing and partying and charming ladies and all that and that doesn't work with the jungle!
DM: Well, that's true, but you shouldn't be stuck there much longer! You did find that outpost, remember? And what did you mean about the plot thing? [3]

And so on...

The point is that, if you have a group like mine that won't give feedback in front of everybody, asking them in private what they're thinking about the game can get them talking.

If they still insist things are fine, you can suggest things that you're not personally happy with. Leading with a "I wish Charlotte would speak up more" or even something a bit self-deprecating, such as "I keep making the battles too easy!" or "I'm sorry the game's so slow, sometimes" can really let people know that it's ok to talk about the game and that you really are looking for criticism.

If they still insist things are fine after all that, maybe things are OK. Maybe they really are happy.

Or maybe you're such a bad GM that they don't feel like it's worth wasting their time giving you their opinion because you won't listen anyways. You're going to have to pay attention to see which it is and honestly if you've read this much, you at least have the right attitude.

[1]: Plus some players are just shy! I have a hell of a time convincing myself that my opinions are important or valuable, especially when everybody else seems to be fine with the way things are. But sometimes you end up on a trip to Abilene...

[2]: He'd become used to swinging his sword every turn (and indeed, built his character around it) and had a hard time thinking outside the box with another way to deal damage. He could have tripped, taunted, used the environment, or any number of other things... But in his defense, "sword attacks" had been working for him the whole time and he was just delaying while the rest of the party dealt with the archers on the flanks. I'm not sure what either of us could have done differently, knowing what we know. Each turn I was thinking "You're not getting anything done, do something else!" and he was thinking "I haven't done anything yet but this next blow could be the one- I'll just keep at it!"

[3]: I said "roll up characters that are leaving their home for some reason- you're going to be starting on a ship travelling across the sea," and one guy said "like Morrowind?" I replied "Kinda, I guess," and I had meant just "can't go home; must go forwards" but none of them went with that angle in their backstories- 2 of them ended up on the boat by accident, 1 was a self-exiled wandering-warrior daughter of nobility, and 1 of them was an amnesiac priest looking to do good, and 1 of them was a quiet street rat running from the law. So I scrapped it, because by all of them creating characters with links to their old world they have indicated that their character's homeland is still very much important to them. It actually turns out I was right, as when I told them the cultures of this new land they all immediately decided they wanted to be one of them, and one of my players actually helped me flesh out his characters' homeland because, so we spent a very pleasant two or so hours hashing out all of that.

13 January 2015

For Lack Of A Game

I have not played a game in two weeks! This is not for lack of wanting, but because two of my players have been busy and then also some of my other players are unreliable! [1] This would make me upset except that I have been filling the space with many other things!

I have been reading webcomics!

Some people binge on seasons of their television shows. [2] Pshaw! Child's Play! You ought to be binge-reading webcomics!

"Webcomics," scoffs the cinemaphile, "are the last resort of the failed artist, and are nothing more than the chortling playthings of insular dudebros who write about video games!"

That's mostly true! But not all of them. Nimona, for example, is about a shapeshifting girl who teams up with a supervillain to topple a heroic Institution that's not quite what it seems! Hemlock is about a witch with a checkered past in a darkly Scandinavian fairy-tale world! Hark, A Vagrant, for all two of you who haven't read this, is a fanciful retelling of history's most interesting stories, told in the silliest way possible! Nedroid is, like Seinfeld, a comic about nothing. Just kidding! It's about Beartato and Reginald the bird (?) and their adventures through silliness! I've been reading Kid With Experience, an autobiographical comic about the charming Jess Fink! I've been reading other things, too, that I can't remember! [3]

Nimona has a short temper for many things

I have been reading actual things!

Mother Night is a fantastic book, and it's odd reading Welcome To the Monkey House because it's all snippets of stories I'd read online "somewhere" and had completely forgotten about, because Kurt Vonnegut gets reprinted everywhere, endlessly, and for good reason. He's probably as good an author as America can ever produce and if somebody from another country said "what are Americans like, anyways, your television shows are all weird" then they should read some Vonnegut because we haven't changed from the 1960s nearly as much as we like and some of his stories are set much later than that anyways, thank you.

Also good is "FILM CRIT HULK," because when Hulk is talking about movies, Hulk is actually talking about stories, and stories are literally what every human being lives for. Hulk is talking about you and me and life itself, and when you can get past the stylization and unique voice you're finding a person who knows and loves very deeply and passionately. Reading Hulk is like being hugged in your brain. It's a blog, go read it now.

Girls Read Comics is fantastic, in that it got me to consider my previously-unconsidered views on the absurd sexism in comics! I'd never much liked the female superheros common in most Marvel or DC offerings, excepting Black Canary and Hawkwoman [4] in Justice League Unlimited- they were such weak and boring characters. They never did anything exciting or had interesting back stories and just kind of stood around in the back. Even Wonder Woman was like this! I wondered how anybody could be a fan of these women. And then, reading Girls Read Comics I realized that they were boring because their authors were sexist idiots and they always stood in the back because they were supposed to play second fiddle to the "important men" that stood in the foreground and suddenly everything clicked!

I've been playing games!

Tabletop games with my brother! It's pretty cool. My wife isn't as big a board game enthusiast and doesn't like playing them via computer so I'm usually about out of luck, but my brother is a big fan and he's here so we've been going all out.

We've played Darkest Night, which is a decent but flawed game I'll probably review in more fullness later. I want to like it, but it's slow and grinding and really, really random and there's just not enough meat on the game for me. There's a lot of bits and bobs but the game isn't delivering it for me.

A real surprise was Death Angel Space Hulk, which he picked out at random and it turned out to be great. You're Space Marines clearing out this half-wrecked spaceship that's full of vicious aliens, and you're marching ever onwards through corridors while blasting everything and doing your best not to die. It's complex at first but that's just because everything is symbols. It is smooth as hell in play and a really slick design.

Seriously, look at this! Onirim, you done good.
Onirim is a simple card game that is all about hand management and set collection. Your objective is to explore this dream realm and use a key to open doors, or to play three symbols of the same color in a row. Getting in the way are Nightmares, which can slow down or reverse your progress, and your own awful luck. You can pick through your deck using keys, but it's risky, as you're also thinning your deck at the same time. Works great as a solo game, probably alright for two players too. Did I mention it's beautiful? [5]

7 Wonders is a fun civilization building game. There's a dummy with two players, but I find that it actually adds to the depth. This is another one I'll be writing more about in the future, since it's a fairly big game. Smooth in play, slightly Byzantine scoring, great art. Only played one and a half times, so we'll see if it's got longevity.

Red Orchestra: Rising Storm isn't a board game but it is a video game about World War 2. The really cool part is that it's not a big and macho game where it's this big manly heroic thing, it's a really realistic game where you're scrabbling through foliage only to get shot by a guy you didn't see and then you respawn and next life you're machine-gunned down while you're running for cover and then next life you're pinned by machine gun fire and you can hear somebody running and you hope it's backup but nope! It's an IJA and he bayonets you and your squad leader! And for what? To lay claim to a bit of land in the middle of a bombed-out and ruined village on an island nobody's heard of. Really great stuff.

That's it, I guess!

This was really long but a lot of fun to write and it's nice to look back at what I've been doing and realize that I'm not completely wasting my time even if I'm not working on something or (some days) even leaving the house. Life is grand and everything is good.

Oh, hey, if you have any recommendations for good webcomics or board games, let me hear them, because I need to put more things in front of my eyeballs and inside my brain. Thank you very much, and goodnight!


[1] If any of you are reading this, I mean that your attendance is unreliable in general. You are all very good at telling me that you won't be there, but it is unpredictable. This means that the net effect is that when I look at my calendar I can't predict when you'll be around and when you won't. You're all beautiful people.

[2] I do too, actually. Me and my wife would watch entire seasons of Futurama, Scrubs, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, True Blood (don't judge me), and on one particularly cozy afternoon/evening, Adventure Time. I guess you could call watching Band of Brothers or The Pacific "binging" but the goddamn episodes are like an hour long each and they're really emotionally draining. At least the Pacific is. If you're looking to join any part of the military that has anything to do with being anywhere near combat you should watch that show and then think about whether or not you'll be there. I'm not saying my experience was nearly as bad as that show, obviously, but for some people it probably was.

[3] There have been a lot, seriously! You don't have to read tripe like Penny Arcade or whatever Buckly's B^U comic is called. Real-life comics can be funny and sexy and highbrow and don't just have to be jokes about dicks and video games featuring talking heads or capes and neither do webcomics! (And if you like that sort of thing that's fine too, I'm just sayin' there's more out there)

[4] Black Canary was always so cool because she'd be off doing her own thing, in a normal-ass costume, beating up punks and showing up at random moments like "oh damn Black Canary, what are you doing here!" And then the Huntress is like "You should join the Justice League!" and Black Canary says "Nah, it'll just cramp my style," and then BC leaves, presumably to go kick more villains in the mouth. What a great character! And then Hawkgirl was neat because she was from ancient Egypt or whatever and she actively rebuked her wanna-be husband/lover because he was awful to her, and she didn't need him around for anything because she was with a dude who respected him. And she always wanted to smash things. She smashed the crap out of things like, all the time. Although now that I'm reading the webpage it turns out she was just a pawn of her husband and then she betrays everybody and then re-betrays everybody and I guess she isn't that cool in the later episodes. Well, bummer.

[5] Why are "dreams" such an underused concept for games and media, anyways? The only things I can think of that use it as a theme are Onirim, LSD Dream Simulator, and the role-playing game Lacuna. At least Inception got people thinking about that sort of thing, even if nothing really happened about it except that people talk about dreams-within-dreams sometimes if it comes up. That reminds me, I need to figure out lucid dreaming some day.

05 January 2015

Attribute-less 5e

I'm involved in an intermittently-running 5e game, and was making a new character when I had a small thought. What if 5e dropped attributes entirely? Do we even need them? I've got a lot of things on this character sheet already right now- could I get by with one less?

I slept on it, which meant that I rolled the idea around in my head a little, and decided to use this post as a sort of sounding-board. If you have any ideas or complaints or anything at all to say, let me know in the comments!

Moving on!

Attributes serve a couple of purposes in 5e:
  1. Character specialization. A 15 strength fighter is different than a 15 strength druid (but more on this later).
  2. Multiclass restriction. Since your character is not good at everything, there optimal and suboptimal classes. (Again, more on this later.)
  3. Racial Benefits. Some races get bonuses to one stat and penalties to another. This one's short and sweet but check it out. They don't matter at all.
  4. Increasing General Power. Increasing your primary stat does a number of things for your character and is built in to your class every couple of levels. What do you do about that?
But what of those are necessary?

Character specialization is something I've been thinking a lot about recently, especially because of my recent interest in Fate. In that game, you have aspects and skills/approaches and that's it. It's not really necessary to know exactly how strong your character is in terms of weight carried because it's not important to the narrative. Conan never worries about the weight of his gear because he can carry as much as makes sense and the only time anybody cares is when he's being chased and- oh no- he can't carry the gem of Clizzak-teff and escape the lizard people! Will he fight or stay?

D&D has a long history of sort of doing this backwards. Nothing in D&D says "this system will produce the interesting stories you want to tell." On the contrary, it's "this is the story you will be telling; make it interesting," and as long as you're interested in a story where you're on a dungeon-crawling treadmill and counting your coins, then you're set. [1]

Where am I going with this?

My point is that attributes don't really impact the story. When you're asking for a dice roll, what you're asking is not "are you strong enough to do this" or whatever, you're asking "are you capable of this?" Nearly every roll that one would use an attribute roll is already covered by another skill. Brute force is a subset of Athletics. Dodging is Acrobatics. Knowing history is History. If you can think of a use for an attribute that isn't covered by a skill, I am extremely interested in it. I can't think of any.

See, here's where it gets a little fun. The math's not right without the attributes being rolled in with stats somehow. You'll be a little short on most rolls (and a little ahead on some of them.) So what do you do? That's actually surprisingly easy.

Give everybody a flat, unchanging +2. Call it a "Hero Bonus" or something, and apply it to anything that cares about any attribute bonus. Add it to your attacks. Add it to your AC. Slap it on all of your skills. When you're proficient in a thing, add your proficiency bonus on top of it.

That's it.

Yeah, that means that everybody's sort of got the same capabilities, but who cares? Was that -1 Intelligence on your barbarian important to you mechanically, or do you ignore it half the time anyways in favor of playing your barbarian the way you want? Was the -1 strength on your sorcerer the only thing keeping you from running in with your dagger and getting some quick stabs in or was that always a stupid idea because you are more or less made of fireballs and are wearing a tattered nightgown? [2]

A bit sticky are attribute saving throws. How do you mark down an attribute saving throw without attributes? Well that one's easy: You don't. Attribute saving throws literally don't do anything at all now. Every save works the same way: Hero Bonus + Proficiency Bonus. Hey look, we've got a unified saving throw again! Isn't that neat? I'm getting whiffs of Swords and Wizardry here.

If you don't like that, then keep attribute saving throws, but rename them. Your characters are now Strong and Dextrous. When you have an attribute saving throw, then you get your Proficiency Bonus, otherwise it's just your Hero Bonus. Look at us! Saves space and only comes up when the game asks for an attribute saving throw, specifically, to resist a thing.

Here's a really neat thing that you can do, now that you've got +2 in everything- multiclass! If you ever wanted to be a Barbarian/Sorcerer you're in luck. I'll admit that it's not perfect, since the one thing that 5e really does well is give interesting subclasses and you can kind of do that already but hey, who cares? You can go Barbarian 1/Sorcerer 9 and won't have wonky stats that make you worse at both. You can be a Wizard 2/Cleric 2 without feeling like a dork because you're only getting part of the benefits.

You know what else is cool? There are no more optimal and suboptimal races. (Well there still are but it's less so, now.) Every race is equally good at everything else, while still feeling unique since they've all got good racial skills. Dwarves are still stout, elves are still graceful, half orcs are still violent sociopaths, much less changes here than you might think. Elf barbarians are on equal mechanical footing with half-orc barbarians, and dwarf rangers are as good as half-elven ones. Neat, right? [3]

I do recommend, if you're using this, to use one of the variant Human traits, because the human racial of "+1 to everything" was always pretty lame but it's extra lame when that's "+1 to every nothing." I personally like the skills one best, but do your thing. You also might want to change up the Mountain Dwarf- nobody's going to be a mountain-dwarf fighter if all they're getting is armor feats they had already, so something as simple as "if you already have this, then grab another feat" or make something new up. But what's a rules hack if you're not changing things? And such small things they are!

The last thing I can think about is the fact that attribute bonuses are a form of progression within the game. You're expected to eventually reach the end limit of 20 in your attribute at some point, and you'll probably leave the other attributes down in the dust. This one's tricky, because part of me is saying it doesn't really matter, while another part of me is saying that the DC of casters' spells relies on their attribute bonus, at the very least. You're really going to want to use the Feat variant that replaces attribute bonuses for characters, and you might want to add a "Spell Mastery" feat that increases the DC of spells cast by that character by 2. It's nice and narrow and means that the character has an emulated Intelligence bonus of +4 solely for keeping up with any mean NPCs who have managed to increase their spell defending abilities somehow.

Let me reiterate how this hack works in nice and easy steps for any interested tinkerers.
  1. Yank out attributes.
  2. Include a +2 Hero Bonus. Apply this bonus to literally everything that requires an attribute, including hit points, attack rolls, skill rolls, and saving throws.
  3. Decide whether to include attribute saving throws.
  4. If you do, write the adjective version (i.e. Strong, Tough) and apply the proficiency bonus to those saves.
  5. If you don't, decide right now whether to give the proficiency bonus to all of the saves or none. This makes heroes either slightly more durable or slightly more vulnerable to save-based attacks.
  6. Use a variant Human trait and consider the Mountain Dwarf.
  7. Use the "Feats instead of Attribute Bonus" variant and consider adding a "Spell Mastery" feat that increases spell DCs by 2 for any spell that character casts.
  8. Bask in the glow of a slightly shorter character sheet and slightly more even characters because you're done.

[1]: I actually really, really like this level of play and wish D&D would figure out what it wants to be. I like coin-counting, expeditionary dungeon-delves where I'm trying to figure out how many rations I need and if I'm going to need to get an ox-cart to haul supplies and setting up base camps to retreat to at night. I like spiking doors and counting the hours left on my oil supply. What I don't like is when D&D forgets what it is and pretends it's something it's not. 5e does a pretty good job, actually, barring a few odd examples like the Outlander's complete removal of any need to forage, and some of the variant rules in the DMG that don't make any sense. It's certainly doing better than the last two editions, at any rate.

[2] What I'm trying to say here is that your class is self-defining and attributes don't do anything about that. Wizards are almost unarmed but cast spells. Paladins wear thick armor and smite their foes. Slight differences in attributes mean very little and edge cases, like a gnome ranger with 8str and 10 dex, are signs that either its creator is attempting a joke at the expense of their fellow players, that the rules of the system are not understood, or that they're attempting something extremely unorthodox intentionally as some sort of challenge or statement. None of these goals are harmed by what boils down to a standardization of attributes, unless I am misunderstanding something.

[3] This I expect to be a matter of personal preference, since one of the reasons that people like D&D is that it gives them something to build around by handing them problems to solve, i.e. "how do I make this gnome barbarian good" and all that. That's fine, but I feel like 5e isn't the right game for that anyways. The classes are all straightforward and the feats are compartmentalized in such a way that I have a hard time envisioning alternate and unusual ways to make something work. Instead, 5e tries its hardest to tell you "high wisdom is just plain better for clerics" and hammers it home by having half of your class abilities and all of your spells working off it and then limiting your attributes anyways so the only real benefit of having a high wisdom race is being able to hit that magical number 20 faster and then you have to improve else anyways, or else grab a feat (if you can.) I really like this. Some, surely, do not.

Looking Back

They say that if you don't look back at who who were from a year ago and cringe that you haven't grown enough. What if I look back f...