Invisible walls and railroading

A quick thought today : I stumbled on this article about the “The 13 worst game design crimes”. It’s about computer games, but some points could also be applied to tabletop RPGs (the numbers are from the article) :

  • 1. Defeating the player in a cutscene, which is pretty self-explanatory.
  • 4. Invisible walls and unconquerable waist-high barriers, where a player cannot wander farther than some arbitrary limit, even if there is nothing to stop them in the fiction.
  • 6. The arbitrary insta-fail, where a choice is offered to the player, but all choices but one is doomed to fail.
  • 7. Invincible locked doors, where some ordinary-looking doors just cannot be opened or broken.
  • 9. Invincible story characters, where an important character cannot be killed or harmed in any way, at least for a time.

In tabletop RPGs, all of those “crimes” are usually instances of what we call “railroading” from the DM. Sure, most of the times, the invisible walls are not literally invisible walls, but there are plenty other ways to limit the playground (broken bridge, high-powered NPC or monsters, magic, anti-magic…); same goes for invincible doors and characters.

But the term “railroading” is a pretty broad one. After all, playing Call of Duty does not exactly offer a choice to use a diplomatic way, but it’s not an instance of #6; in an similar manner, if a player were to decide that his PC opens an inn to lead a peaceful life in your average D&D game, nobody would accuse a DM telling them that they’ll need another PC to continue playing with the group of railroading. There are some assumptions in every game and at every table; railroading does not mean refusing some possible course of action outright, it means refusing the ones that are compatible with the assumptions.

So making assumptions clear can help avoid railroading. After all, some assumptions can be contradictory, so what count as railroading in one game may very well be understood as good DMing for another. For example, fudging the dice to avoid getting a PC killed by a mook could be seen as a form of railroading (the DM wants to see epic battles with the big bad evil boss, so they decide break the rules to make it happen), while, at the other end of the spectrum, some could see not fudging as railroading (the DM wants the PCs to use boring preparation instead of just being awesome, and so let them die if they do anything rash).

This can go both ways, too. The DM may assume that the PCs are going to work together to help people, so offer hooks and choices that are meaningful for this type of party (do you help the hostage, letting the mastermind escape, or do you go after them, letting the hostage die?) If the players go against that assumption, they could see the DM as attempting to railroad them into a specific type of game.

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Hit point hacking, continued

In a previous post, I talked about my love-hate relationship with HP mechanics. Here, I sketch a possible solution. It’s definitely a work-in-progress and definitely not as simple a modification as I originaly anticipated, but here it is anyway!

Before starting, I’ll just say that the term HP itself should probably be changed to something that does not convey the meaning of “health” or “capacity to withstand punishment”. We want a word that instinctively means “capacity/energy to dodge/deflect/parry attacks” or something like that. I don’t have a gret idea, so I’ll go with “Stamina Point (SP)” for now, since it’s often used in videogames to name the “energy” used to do act (Dark Souls 2, I’m thinking of you!) I’m open to suggestions!

The last problem I presented (any trying action should deplete SP, not only defending) is in my opinion the easiest to fix : make every trying actions “cost” SP. Numenera uses this idea (there is no HP, only pools of Might, Speed and Intellect points that you can use to fuel powers and lose when hit).

The second problem I presented (dodging, evading and armor protection are represented by other mechanics, like AC in D&D) is a bit more complex to solve because it is more deeply rooted. In games like D&D (and most games), damaging opponents is a two-step process : first you need to know if your attack is successful (roll to hit), then if it is, you evaluate how successful it was (roll HP damage). So some defenses were incorporated in the first defense stat (in D&D, most defenses raise AC, making the character harder to hit) and others were incorporated in the second (in D&D, damage reduction and temporary HP do that). To use SP instead of HP, we need to reconsider how, exactly, all those defenses help (do they increase SP? do they lower the SP cost of some defensive actions?)

But more radically, we need to reconsider how to understand the “roll to hit”. With SP replacing HP, it cannot be “roll to determine if attack connects with target”, but more “roll to determine how hard this attack is to evade”. On the top of my head, poor rolls could reduce SP damage (easier to evade) and excellent roll could raise it (harder to evade), but other effects could be used (poor roll cost more SP to the attacker, for example.)

The first problem I identified (describing a success by describing a hit that mostly misses the target is counter-intuitive and anti-climactic at best, and at worse is fictionnally the same as a miss) is probably the hardest to deal with. I’m going to point out that with the reconsidered “to hit roll”, it’s not as important a problem : replacing a clear-cut distinction between sucessful and unsucessful attack with a continuum between least and most successful attack can live with all of them being fictionally more similar. One way to differentiate would be to describe the effort needed by the defender : a less successful attack is effortlessly sidesteped while a very successful one leave her off-balance for a second. Furthermore, by removing completely the idea that SP represents general health, it’s not as counter-intuitive as I thought it was. Well narrated, it does not have to be more anti-climactic than describing another solid hit that do not put the defender down, after all.

Still, none of that really tackles the problem. Maybe it’s not as much a problem as I first thought?

I’ll leave it like that today (a very anti-climactic conclusion, I’ll admit!), but food for thoughts (mine, at least!)

Hit points hacking

I love hit points mechanics, but I also find it really hard to describe them in the fiction in a satisfying manner. I love them because they are a great way to help players (and GMs) track their characters “capacity to fight without dying” so they can decide what course of action they should pursue (fight, get some healing, flee, etc.) I think that it’s an essential part of any RPG where combat is meant to be an important part of play : this way, a player can take part in it knowing that (unlike in real life) death or maiming is not a possible outcome every time an enemy swing an axe or shoot a gun at her character.

But in my mind, a character stats should represent something about the character. HP is no different. But what, exactly, does it represent? What does it mean, from a character’s point of view, to lose HP? What is the difference between an axe swing that deals 0, 3 and 13 HP damage? Between being at 75% HP and 25% HP? Between a character that has a maximum of 4, 12 or 60 HP? Between a character that can deal 1d6 HP damage and another that can deal 10d6+12?

Since 0 HP usually means “dead” or “knocked out”, we can understand it as a measure of the general health of the character, something like her “capacity to withstand punishment” : the more she has, the more hits she can endure without going down.  But unless we are talking about non-lethal combat, describing a success (i.e dealing damage) by describing a solid hit leads to a disconnect between the abstract rule (HP) and the fiction (at least in settings where characters are roughly as resistant as a normal human being, not god-like). I mean, you can’t get three or four solid axe swings in the guts before dying, and a single arrow in a shoulder should severely impede your capacity to use that arm. Correctly representing that (like most systems replacing HP with wounds I know of) by making HP loss mechanically significant makes fights much more deadly, which undercuts the interest and love I have for HP. (Don’t get me wrong : it can be great for some games, but it’s not what I’m looking for.)

I think the “less bad” way to understand HP is to equate it with “capacity to parry and dodge attacks”, taking into account both ability (max HP) and energy (% HP) to do so. So from a character’s point of view, losing HP means getting tired. Every other answers flow from that : an attack that deals more HP damage is harder to evade, so 0 is effortless to evade (a complete miss); 75% HP is a bit tired, 25% is weary; a max HP of 4 is not very good for getting out of harm’s way in a fight while a max HP of 60 is much better; a character dealing 1d6 damage is way easier to evade than one dealing 10d6+12.

With this understanding, describing an attack that depletes HP without dropping it to 0 should basically describe an attack that got dodged, parried, repelled by armor or otherwise evaded, or that does only superficial damage like bruise and scratches.

Here is why I think it’s not great :

  • Describing a success (i.e dealing damage) by describing a hit that mostly misses the target is counter-intuitive and anti-climactic at best, and at worse is fictionnally the same as a miss (which is especially true of critical hits…)
  • Dodging, evading and armor protection are often (but not always) represented by other mechanics, like AC (in D&D) or soaking (in Savage World), so that makes those description confusing : was that parrying representing a loss of HP or low to-hit roll?
  • If HP means “energy to evade attacks”, then any trying action (attacking, for one!) should deplete it, not only defending against attack, which is not how most systems handle it.

I still think it’s less bad than understanding HP as “capacity to withstand punishment”, because it makes more sense in the fiction and because I think that those problems can be solved. I’ll come back to this in a future post.

Bow of Thol the Scout

Here is a new item for Dungeon World. Yes, it is inspired by Shadow of Mordor 🙂

Bow of Thol the Scout (near, far, 1 weight)

Thol was part of a small scouting party that was slaughtered by a gnoll patrol. Their heads were put on spikes, but Thol’s body was found by his captain just outside of their camp, a hundred yards from the attack.

Apart from the silver tips holding a silver string, this composite wooden bow looks like those crafted for the soldiers of the Southern Hills.

This bow can be used like any other one, but when you whisper “we’ve got to warn them” before releasing an arrow, spend 1 ammo and roll +DEX. You teleport yourself where the arrow lands. On a 10+, you’re exactly where and how you wanted to be. On a 7-9, you’re close enough, but disoriented by the travel and you need a moment to adjust. On a 6-, as 7-9, but you also left something behind; the DM will say what it is.

What I want from a RPG

Before getting around to my list, let me tell you a bit about me first. That may help to understand what I and and why I want it.

My friends and I have been playing D&D 3.5 (and 3.0 before that) for quite a long time now. Until around 2010, I was GMing most of it, but back then, I decided that I was tired of all those very specific rules and to spend so much time writing down stats block instead. I wanted to switch to other games, but my friends liked 3.5. I became mostly a player. I did not fall back in live with the system, but I love to play and having only one PC to manage is much less time consuming.

I started to read a lot of games (FATE, Dramasystem, Pathfinder, The Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer… just to name a few) and I played/masterd lighter systems, like Cortex+ (both Leverage and Marvel Heroic; great system) Savage World (not a fan), Apocalypse World and Dungeon World (both built on the same engine that I love; most games I read now are Powered by the Apocalypse). I must say that Dungeon World really clicked with me. Even if you don’t use the game, it’s full of great GMing advice. Go read it, and grab the fan guide while you’re at it.

The biggest problem with DW is that my friends did not like it. Although there is a lot of structure to the game (through the moves mechanics), it’s still very freeform : what you describe is the most important thing that let you do things (or not). That put them off. And even if that saddens me, I understand how it’s not a game for everyone.

To contrast, a D&D 3.5 player might look at the standard action list, calculate his chance of succeeding different ones, then decide to use Disarm because is the most efficient  use of his time; in DW, there is no Disarm action, but if you want to disarm your enemy, you’ll have to roll something that will probably have the same chance of success that a regular attack would. In the first case, you look at a list of mechanically defined possibilities, while in the other, you just say want you want to do and roll something that have no statistical difference from a lot of other actions you might have done. In 3.5, you can very easily think mostly through abstracted rules to decide what to do (I know, it’s possible not to), while in DW, it’s almost impossible to play that way (yes, it’s possible to). One of my friend told me that he found that DW gave him too much freedom, and that “even if it may sound weird” (his words), he preferred rules that limited what he could try.

We recently switched to 5th edition, and even if it has a very elegant rule set less reliant on specific modifiers, it’s still much closer to 3.5 than to DW.

All that being said, I want  a game that can feel much more like DW, but with enough abstract rules bit to be fun for my fiends. From the top of my head, here’s some stuff that I think is important :

  1. Start with a fictional description, use rules to determine the outcome, then express it in fictional description.
  2. Very few interaction with stuff outside the fiction (the less dice counting and sheet reading necessary, the best it is; that’s personally what I think is a flaw in the Cortex+ [and FATE, for that matter] system).
  3. Not a strict initiative system (you go, I go, monster 3 go, she goes, you go, I go…)
  4. Specific powers/abilities that are mechanically distinguishable for the players.
  5. A very light system for the GM, so that prepping combat encounters is entirely optional.
  6. Rules that help the GM to do rulings instead of already settled modifiers.
  7. Reaction abilities (I absolutely love the Shield spell in D&D 5th!)
  8. Rules for play that fits on a couple of sheets (a player can play a full DW campaign with 4 pages, 6 if she’s a spellcaster, never needing anything else.)

Enough for today. I’ll go in more details in a future post!

Some ideas to give D&D 5th edition the E6 treatment

I talked about the possibility of stopping HP and damage scaling in D&D 5th edition. I used what E6 did to D&D 3.5 as a comparison. Here is how I envision it :

Up to level 6, there are no differences : leveling up is done exactly as written. After that, a PC gain a level for every 10 000 XP (9 000 is how much you need to level up to 7, but 10 000 is a nice, round number.) Here are the key differences :

  1. No max HP increase. The only way to raise it is by raising the Constitution score.
  2. No Hit Dice increase.
  3. Most abilities dealing with HP and Damage that scale with character level stop doing so (Barbarian’s Rage Damage; Cleric’s Destroy Undead; Fighter’s Second Wind; Monk’s Deflect Missile, Wholeness of Body; Rogue’s Sneak Attack; Warlock’s Dark One’s Blessing.) For the purpose of those abilities, character level cannot be above 6th.
    • The Bard’s Combat Inspiration does scale, but it did not strike me as unbalancing, so I say let it continue to do so.
  4. Spellcasting related stats are going to be modified like this :
    • Spell slots are gained normally for every class. Same goes for the Warlock Slot level progression.
    • Every spell of 3rd level or less is unaffected. Learn and cast them per the rules.
    • Spells of a higher level that do not inflict damage are unaffected. Learn and cast them per the rules.
    • Other spells are simply deleted. They cannot be learned nor casted.
      • There are probably some of those spells that should be deleted, especially ones that boost damage output or protect from damage. For now, let’s just put a pin on that.
      • A more perfect (but time-consuming) conversion would certainly modify some of those spells to keep them, so I would keep an open mind if a player want to have access to deleted spells. Adapting them to keep their damage/healing/protection in line with 3rd level ones is very much possible.
    • Casting a spell with a higher level spell slot cannot raise its damage above what a 3rd level spell slot would allow. All other variables (range, duration, number of person affected, etc.) are modified normally.
    • Every power that duplicates spells (like the Monk’s Casting Elemental Spells feature) must follow the same rules.

Everything else stays the same!

When preparing combat encounters, a GM would need to consider the PCs are never very much above 6th level. Sure, they would have more ressources than real 6th level (so could probably tackle more combats before needing to rest), would succeed a bit more often at what they are proficient in (since the Proficiency Bonus still increases) and, at very high level (around 17th) would also have access to overpowered attacks like the Monk’s Quivering Palm (but those abilities are all limited to once per long rest, so they are not going to come up often).

An idea to make high level D&D play faster

I was a player recently in a D&D 5th edition game. We started the Mines of Phandelver module, all level 1. It was very nice : combats were fast, action options were meaningful and as a wizard, the feeling of danger was high enough that I really needed to use terrain features (i.e cover!) to survive. Then, I played a higher-level level character (around level 10) in another 5th edition game. It was not awful, but it was way less interesting. We spent maybe 45 minutes fighting a couple of easy monsters that were not even close to being a threat (if I remember correctly, no PC lost any HP) but were long to kill (after one of them went down, the GM narratively waived the remainder of the combat by saying that we were going to kill them anyway).

Some would say that this is the problem in any D&D high level game : as you level up, players and GMs have more options (so need more time to choose what to do or to look up the rules to do it correctly), monsters and PC have more HP, etc. I know someone that conclude a campain when PC level reaches the low 10s because the time combat takes is “too damned high!” Can’t we give everyone at the table more options without making combats move along like a slug?

I think so : by removing HP scaling (like Dungeon World do), or at least by curtailing it (like E6 did with D&D 3.5.) Doing that also means doing the same for damage, unless you want PC one-shotting monsters (and vice-versa). Mechanics-wise, D&D 5th edition probably cannot go the E6 way (since feats are much more rare and powerful), but I think that with little modifications, a PC could continue to gain access to higher level powers normally (the biggest issue, I think, is going to be spell-heavy classes). I’ll probably dig a bit deeper in a future post.