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A while back, I observed that, despite Lord Gygax’s writing being rightly criticized at times, he sometimes made some funny observations that I loved, and you really can’t have one without the other. Rather than accept the compliment for our beloved leader, some of you took me for task, stating there is no way (Seriously? No way?) Lord Gygax’s writing could be rightfully criticized. I have some questions for those people.
1/day, an ogre mage can cast “a ray of cold the same dimensions as that of a cold wand.” Putting aside the missing preposition, what’s a “cold wand”? A wand of cold? No, because that’s not a thing either.
Okay, that one’s not so bad. It’s probably a wand of frost. I don’t like having to go to another book to figure out what the book I’m reading is saying, especially without a page cite, but it didn’t take much work to deduce, so let’s keep going. Locathahs are “very intelligent” (intelligence of 11-12), yet they don’t speak a language. If that doesn’t seem right, it’s because it isn’t. They have their own language. How do I know this? I read the write up on the merman. Half of mermen speak locathah. That’s where I had to go to learn about the locathahs. You could also go to the triton stat block to learn that, which is my suggestion because the triton stat block is also where you have to go to learn that aquatic elves have their own language. Well, it actually says “sea elves,” which we’re all assuming are aquatic elves. Worgs may also have a language because winter wolves (that do) can converse with them, but it’s unclear whether that’s because Worgs can speak the language of winter wolves. If troglodytes speak a language, I haven’t found it yet.
Okay, that was a lecture. Back to questions. How many hit points does an ogre chieftain have? How much damage does a punch from Orcus do? Well, you better have an 11-sided die so that you can determine that (unless you like rerolling high numbers 8.3333% of the time). While you’re at it, make sure to bring your 7-sided die to the game. You may need to calculate how many hit points a goblin has. Fortunately, you need either a d5 or a d9, not both, to determine how many hit points of damage an umber hulk’s mandibles do.
Why doesn’t a giant pike have a swim speed? They seem to run pretty fast on land (36″). Eel? Eye of the deep? Giant gar? Hippocampus? Ixitxachitl? Lamprey (normal or giant)? Locathah? Masher? Morkoth? Portuguese Man-o-War? (From Portugal? Why not? Rakshasa are from India.) Rays of all sorts? Sea hag? Giant sea horse? Sea lion? Shark and megalodon? Sea snake? Triton? Water weird? Whale? That’s every single aquatic monster in the 1e Monster Manual that has only one speed, and it isn’t for swimming.
What spells do a rakshasas cast? What language(s) do they speak? I could ask the same questions for a number of creatures. I already did once (see above). How many rounds or turns does a slithering tracker’s paralysis last? If its siphoning of plasma is interrupted by an attack, will it have time to resume that process if the attacker breaks off the attack? How much damage does a giant slug’s acid do? It’s its preferred attack. Shouldn’t we be told without having to find it in the DMG (on page 64, by the way)? On a d6 roll of 2, what psionic attack will a Su-Monster use? Okay, that last one is just a typo. 🙂
Then there are the spells being referenced with variant names throughout the Monster Manual and even within the Players Handbook itself. One psionic attack is apparently misnamed. What does a mind flayer’s “mind blast” do? I’m not even going to address this disaster. I’ll leave that to this site, which isn’t just an indictment of incompleteness but also general disorganization.
Maybe I’m sensitive, but this is poor writing. My social media posts sometimes generate over 100 responses, and those responses often make opposite claims as to what the text clearly means. For example, no one could agree on the effect of a Iron Golem’s breath weapon or whether paladins and rangers cast at their class level or their class level minus 7 or 8 respectively. A whale at the surface of water is one of many examples of a monster that strikes a target for half the target’s hps. Is that half the target’s undamaged hp total or half the target’s current hp total? I think that last question applies to the effect a Haste spell has on a Wind Walker, but I’m just not sure. The only thing these people could agree on is that their own opinion was unambiguously supported by the text. I’m no logician, but I’m pretty sure that means that one of them is incorrect. I’m still waiting for those apologists to come to a consensus as to what that text clearly says. Instead, they claim that the others are ignoring what’s obvious, missing the irony completely.
At other times, the conversation devolves into, “Well, you’re the DM. Do what you want.” I assure you I will, but I shouldn’t have to design my own game system in the process. The rules should provide a clear baseline, and from there I can tweak it knowing I won’t likely break the game with my preferences. Saying “do what you want” in these contexts concedes, intentionally or not, that the rules are horribly vague. Sometimes when they are clear, they’re disorganized or require mathematically impossible “fair” dice.
This doesn’t mean you must hate the game. There are always clunky workarounds, and I can’t wait to play it again despite my concerns. Besides, these failures are certainly understandable. Lord Gygax was a pioneer. It’s impossible to get something right the first time, especially organization. As far as ambiguity is concerned, modern writers go to great pains to formulate unambiguous language. It’s an impossible goal, but you one can’t even come close if you don’t know to try. Lord Gygax was suffering from a variation of the false consensus effect, assuming that everyone would interpret his words exactly as he intended, in no small part because he was doing this before anyone else. He didn’t have the experience of dealing with min/maxers that squeeze any ambiguity they can find from the text. There’s also plenty to love about his writing, which I’ll discuss next week. However justified his approach, it’s foolish to deny the one and only thing that is clear: Lord Gygax’s writing is often rightly criticized. Denying that denies just how much he difficulty he faced as a pioneer. Getting angry at this notion is doubling down on that foolishness.
Once again, you kids have wandered onto my lawn, so I need to set you straight. Consider the following meme.
In this meme, Kira Nerys (in the first column) is reacting to what’s going on in the second column, yet her reactions are placed to the left of the Bluetooth devices. How does that make sense? While not all cultures read left to right, most do, and more to the point, ours does. Ergo, the meme shouldn’t be organized this way. Nevertheless, this is how they usually appear, and when they don’t, I’m assuming someone made a mistake. Try this, and see if a better mental picture forms in your head.
“But Rob! She’s subtly facing the wrong direction!” Not really, assuming the camera is panning from the ear to her (which makes the original image wrong for a different reason), but if it really bothers you, then flip the image, Picasso. I used MS Paint for all of this.
Doesn’t this work much better? Get it straight, dipshits.
A roller derby team has sued the team formerly known as the Cleveland Indians.
You may have heard that the Cleveland Indians are no more. The Major League Baseball team’s name has been changed to the Cleveland Guardians, though not on Twitter (what choice do they have?). Unfortunately, there already is a Cleveland Guardians team in Cleveland. They’re a roller derby team (yeah, they own the website address), and they claim to have a trademark in the name, prompting them to sue the baseball team. The roller derby team is also claiming that the baseball team attempted to buy out their rights to the name with an insulting offer. If…
Yesterday, I published a post on how the wonderful 4th Edition D&D (“4e”) innovations, passive insight and passive perception, have 1st Edition AD&D (“1e”) to thank for their existence to some extent. They were so good that 5th Edition D&D (“5e”) kept them despite owing its quick existence to 4e hatred. PI & PP represent pulling back from the active checks of 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”). Some brief but extremely useful conversations took place on Facebook, so I hastily put together this post to take it a little further. I apologize for any typos or incomplete sentences. I’ll clean it up later tonight.
Note: The extent of my experience with other games is relatively limited.
All of this got me thinking. The problem with 3e skill rolls is metagaming. If the characters enter a room, and the DM tells the players to make Spot or Listen checks, and the players all roll 10s or less, they’re not going to believe the DM’s words, “You see nothing here.” Telling the players to roll those checks is basically giving away the secret, so I never saw a rogue try to pick a lock under analogous circumstances. That solution doesn’t work for me. Instead, I’m considering something I haven’t seen in D&D nor in any other role-playing game (see note above). My solution lies somewhere between 1e and 4e’s PI and PP. 1e has the monster’s stat block determine whether the PCs succeed or fail, which means that the DM rolls unannounced checks, and players aren’t aware that anything is up (i.e., reduces metagaming). That’s great, but it removes player agency over their own characters’ attributes and abilities. 4e PI and PP instead have the players’ character sheets factor in. The monster stat block sets the difficulty, but the PCs’ attributes and abilities modify their rolls appropriately (i.e., increases PC agency). At first, it seems like PI and PP are the best solution.
The Problem with Passives
But if they were, this post wouldn’t exist. When a game uses passives, the game designers build challenges around what the characters expected passives are going to be. In a situation where the game (or adventure) designer doesn’t want the characters to pierce an illusion or locate a trap, they can always set the difficulty (let’s call it a “TN” for “target number”) unreasonably high, but in most cases, you want the TN to be something nontrivial but obtainable, give or take based on whether it’s easy, moderate, or hard.
But the passive is a static number. There’s no wiggle room, so if, for example, a moderate challenge is desired, the designer picks a number that represents the average TN for the average character. However, every party is going to have at least one character that’s above average in the relevant check. And therein lies the rub. The above-average character’s passive score will always succeed against that average TN. Always. The nature of game design makes passives lean far too heavily towards successes even in a moderate or hard campaign. In hindsight, this is consistent with my experience throughout 4e and 5e.
Thus, while passives remain, in my humble opinion, an innovation, I’m now of the opinion that there’s something better we can use.
As with virtually every issue I’ve raised in these posts, I’m probably not the first person to think of them. Screw it. I’m an asshole, so I’m still calling it “my” solution.
I prefer to keep the rolls behind the DM screen. Let the DM roll to determine success, which means there will always be at least some chance of a total failure and some chance of a total success. The high Wisdom character may still fail to hit an obtainable TN, but low Wisdom character may hit it instead. Everyone’s rolls matter, so everyone has their fun, but usually only the high Wisdom character’s roll will succeed, which means that character’s value will always be appreciated by the group. That character will get a chance to shine in the way in which the character was built to succeed. But that’s game balance, and that depends on the system’s math. I want a little more here because my primary concern is psychological.
So, use the 1e system generally, but allow bonuses and penalties based in part on the character sheet. That is, have the DM roll the dice, but modify the roll based in part on each character’s relevant attributes or abilities, which the DM can keep handy behind the screen. This avoids both the problem with static numbers and the problem of metagaming (in this narrow regard), and the players retain their agency. While you’re at it, you can add bonuses if the characters have encountered a (very) similar challenge in the past.
The problem now is how to handle that math for existing systems. I really like the 1e mechanic of rolling 3d6, and if the roll is at or below a relevant attribute score, then the character succeeds. That won’t always work, though. With the gas spore, it’s a percentile roll. A +1 bonus on a d100 is completely different than a +1 bonus on a roll against an attribute score or a regular d20 save. You’ll need a reasonable formular for each, accounting for both the range of possible values and the bonus or penalty given to the relevant attribute score. You may even want/need to account for class and race abilities.
But with the DM rolling, won’t characters know something’s up? Probably not. Once per round or once per encounter, the DM is expected to roll a surprise die, an initiative die, and a distance die in 1e, and occasionally will be expected to add in some extra dice rolls for equally mundane reasons. There are plenty of reasons to roll in most game systems, but if not, the DM can just make phantom rolls from time to time to throw them off the path. We always expect DM bullshit; it’s a problem only when we’re directed towards specific bullshit. In the end, no one should be the wiser.
Except for gas spores. Anyone who’s read my posts will probably be suspicious of any beholder I throw at them.
There’s one other thing to consider, though. What I’m describing is a small thing, but small things add up. Sure, this is an easy mechanic to grasp conceptually and implement practically, but it’s adding to the pile of other mechanics. PI and PP don’t add as much to the workload as what I’m suggesting, and every bit of complexity you can avoid makes for a faster game. Whether you’re considering what I’m proposing for your own game system or just to add to your existing RPG, keep that in mind.
If you’re modifying an existing system, good luck on the math.
I love 4th Edition D&D (“4e”). I know that’s unpopular, but hear me out, because the one aspect of it I’m going to talk about in this post was kept for 5th Edition D&D (“5e”), so those of you that love 5e owe something to 4e.
When 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”) brought us skill checks (Note: I never played 2nd Edition D&D), players were rolling Listen or Spot checks, and then the DM would say, “Nope, you don’t hear/see anything.” In many instances, this led to some annoying metagaming, as character ignorance didn’t carry the downside it was supposed to carry. Some 3e DMs had players roll a set of d20s before the game, then use them in the order rolled, but they annoyed me. Why would DMs demand I not roll my attacks before my turn, but the demand I roll these checks before the game even started? I know the answer, but it struck me the wrong way. So how do we avoid the metagaming without annoying me?
One of the “innovations” of 4e that I loved was the use of passive perception and passive insight. They avoided players rolling checks for things concealed from their characters because otherwise the players would know something was up. The passive checks, however, gave players a sense of agency. A particularly observant PC would have a better chance of piercing an illusion or spotting a concealed door than one whose Wisdom was below average. That makes a lot of sense, though perhaps more so in a game system that uses point buy or otherwise gives the players more control over their ability scores (which, by the way, is something else I prefer).
A lot of my recent ramblings are about things from 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) that modern game designers abandoned but shouldn’t have. 1e has its own way of resolving this. The players weren’t involved at all. Rather, the monster determines its own chances of success. For example, when characters see a gas spore, there’s a 90% chance that they’ll mistake it for a Beholder. The DM rolls a percentage die, and if it’s below 91%, the DM simply says, “You see a Beholder. Roll surprise and initiative dice please.” There was no room for metagaming around that.
This is less than ideal because, again, the PC is irrelevant, so I still think passive checks are the best way to go. They make both the monsters’ and PCs’ part of the equation. However, I’m happy knowing that 1e helps avoid metagaming, which I think is far more damaging than ignoring the players’ Wisdom scores. I’d prefer that the 1e PC’s Wisdom score had an impact on their roll to give the player a sense of agency, but as someone only recently returning to the game, I’m not sure how to formulate such a rule in 1e.
I’m plugging along with my 1st Edition AD&D database and have reached data entry for the Night Hag. That was an excuse to look up the legend. I had no idea that the Night Hag was the supposed cause of sleep paralysis. Here’s a video care of the Infographics Show, which keeps coming up in my Facebook feed.
Creatures like the Night Hag exist throughout the world’s mythological traditions. Sure enough, the 1e Monster Manual gives the Night Hag powers relating to sleep. The night hag will cast a sleep spell, and if successful strangle the victim to death. If a sleep spell doesn’t work, the night hag will hound the victim’s dreams every night, draining a point of Constitution each night until the victim dies at 0. They do this to evil characters in order to harvest souls for the devils of Hell and the demons of the Abyss, but they’ll attack any good character on sight to keep night hags relevant to the game.
I really like flavor like this, but sadly such flavor seems to be largely discarded among modern gamers, or at least among living campaigns. The most you’ll ever see is an NPC that’s facing something like that, and the PCs enter the scene partway through to rescue the NPC. PCs having such a curse imposed on them that lasted for several sessions (until cured or dead) would probably anger modern players, but I’d enjoy it.
In Eastern Chinese mythology, it’s a mouse that causes sleep paralysis. A mouse. 😐
Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, it’s an advertisement of sorts. I was a legal consultant for the Tales of Arcana 5e Race Guide. I have an advanced copy, and it took me by surprise because I didn’t know much about what was going to be inside. At times, I found myself laughing out loud and some of the 200 playable races this resource provides.
Great stuff, and it appears to have something for everyone. Whether your a goofy bastard like me or someone that takes their game seriously, I suspect there’ll be something in there for you.
For now, it’s a PDF, but there’ll be a hardcover release.