Delving Into A New Dungeon

Post-Publication Edit: One of my friends on Twitter helpfully pointed out that one of the creators of this game, Adam K., has been involved in some awful controversies and, as these horrible things have shown, was apparently never a terribly nice person despite the persona he cultivated online. I can’t suggest buying the book at this point since I don’t think this guy should get any more money, but the other creator seems to be grappling with the failings of this system (e.g. the fantasy racism spread through the examples of how to use the rules and narrative guidelines in play) and his co-creator in a potentially healthy way (I’ll admit I’ve spent only an hour reading up on all this so there might be stuff I’ve missed), so I suggest getting fully informed before you make a decision.

As you’ll see below, I like the narrative style of the system and the light, story-centric rules, but those are common to most Powered by the Apocalypse games, not just Dungeon World, so I suggest you look elsewhere in that system if you want a fun game that doesn’t support someone whose actions are antithetical to my primary principles as a storyteller and GM.

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A Focus on Power Fantasies Ruins TTRPGs For Everyone

I saw someone post on Twitter that Dungeons and Dragons is all about power fantasies and, as a result, most people play characters that are like them in an effort to roleplay situations that make them, personally, feel powerful. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this idea and a WHOLE lot of thoughts about how it can play out in actual games. Part of the problem, of course, is that making any blanket statement based on your personal experiences shows your personal biases, privelege, and frequently overlooks the experiences of people who aren’t like you. I’m going to try to avoid making any such statements here by talking about my experiences specifically, but I will have to generalize a bit unless I’m going to write an entire novel. Which has a certain appeal, but this isn’t really the medium for discourse at length.

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Alignment Systems Lack Nuance

I’ve been thinking about alignment in tabletop RPGs a lot lately. It came up because the game that I’ve been playing lately, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, has an incredibly clunky alignment system that pushes characters towards lawfulness and goodness (on a 9-alignment system of good vs evil and lawful vs chaotic with neutral separating each alignment from the others) because the basic assumption is that a decent person is “neutral good.” Anything that is a little orderly is lawful, anything even a bit self-oriented or anti-established norms is chaotic, anything other than being decent is neutral, and anything absolutely reprehensible is evil. I disagree on so many levels it is difficult to find a place to start other than the very basic assumption: I think most people, even allowing them to be decent human beings, is “true neutral” or unaligned.

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Player Engagement Is a Key GM Skill

I have not always been a good DM. I think it might still be presumptive to call myself a good DM and that I would be more comfortable saying I’m a decent DM with a few specialities, but I think I wouldn’t argue against anyone if they called me a good DM. I think the lesson I learned that made me an alright DM was to never, under any circumstance, take away player agency. They’re free to do whatever they want in the game and I should support their endeavors, but they’re also free to suffer the consequences of their actions.

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Post-D&D Glow

There’s nothing quite like that post-D&D Session high. It’s like exhaustion, a headache, and a stomach bug all rolled into one. Basically a hangover. So incredibly unpleasant, but a sign of great times now over.

I don’t really drink much these days, so maybe that’s me romanticizing my early to mid twenties than a reflection of how I feel about hangovers, so maybe don’t drink to excess.

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Making a Monster

Creating a good D&D 5e homebrewed monster is a matter of balance. Like all things within the bounded-accuracy system of fifth edition, most of the specific numbers for attacks, armor class, and attributes are unnecessary. What you need to know is how to land within certain likelihoods for damage input and output, understand how to balance the action economy of fifth edition, how the difficulty of a fight is set, and the purpose of legendary/lair actions. While this seems like a lot to keep in mind, most of it falls under a series of general rules that make it easy to adjust a fight as it happens so you wind up with what you, the Game Master, expected. 

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Visible Versus Hidden Dice Rolls

When it comes time to make a skill check, every DM faces an eternal conundrum: do you let the players roll it or do you roll it? Is it better to allow the players to make every roll for every check, save, or attack or is it better to keep some of them to yourself so they don’t influence the way your players choose to act in the moment? Sure, there are roleplayers out there who won’t flinch at a botched stealth roll or who can resist summoning dreadful images in their head if they roll single-digits on a saving throw, but most people aren’t that good at separating what they know from what their character knows or can infer.

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The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Most of the time, I don’t play D&D. I run it. There’s a pretty big difference. As a DM, running D&D requires an understanding of the style of game you’re playing, a hefty knowledge of the world you’re playing in, a grasp on at least the core concepts of the rules (though an encyclopedic knowledge of them is frequently very helpful), and at least several reference documents because there is no way you’ll know everything you need to know off the top of your head.

It’s a numbers game with lots of narration and storytelling that requires you to set aside your ego so you can provide opportunities for your players to explore the world, tell a story, and try things. Generally, you want to avoid a focus on “winning” as the DM and instead focus on making sure everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of social management since it is frequently up to the DM to intercede in arguments or interpret rules that don’t necessarily have a clear answer to the question the player is asking, all of which requires a certain amount of social consciousness as the DM. You need to watch your players so you can be ready to support them as they need it and challenge them as they want it. When you DM a lot like I do, it can be easy to think of playing as something that is incredibly easy.

When you get a chance to play though, and really get into it, your perspective shifts. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about managing numbers, turn order, and a thousand tiny details but trying to manage your expectations. Instead of trying to anticipate the players, you’re trying to navigate the minefield that is a combat encounter. Especially at low levels, one wrong choice can make the difference between a simple fight and a fight that uses up all of your resources and abilities. Whenever you’re confronted with a door, there’s no way to know what is behind it and, if you’re the leader of your sorry bunch of misbegotten misbegots, it falls on your to decide if you should open that door or if you should take the safe route and find a place to hunker down until everyone’s hit points are full.

While the effort involved is vastly different, the toll isn’t. As a player, you don’t have to manage a thousand little details, but your character’s life hinges on the success or failure of your actions. As DM, you don’t need to emotionally invest in each decision because there’s no risk of failure for you in a combat encounter. Your job is to help tell a story and provide a challenge. As a player, making the decision to stand at the back of the group is fraught with danger. If, like my character was today, you’re at half hit points and facing a swarm of creatures that aren’t tough but could easily overwhelm you when there’s over ten of them to your single you, that decision isn’t an easy one.

You, the player, don’t want your character to die, but sometimes that’s what happens. Sometimes characters die because of the choices they make. And I say “they” because Chris Amann would not choose for Lyskarhir the Elven fighter to stay behind the group of villagers as they flee the church they’ve hidden inside, but Lyskarhir the Elven fighter certainly would, even if he’s a cantankerous asshole. They didn’t ask to have their town wrecked and their loved ones slaughtered in front of their eyes, and most of them aren’t up to the challenge of standing firm in the face of an oncoming hoard, but you are. So you stand and hope they get away quickly enough for you to get away instead so you don’t need to find out if you’re the kind of person who’d let someone else die instead of facing an attack you’d probably survive.

Chris Amann wouldn’t choose to keep Lyskarhir exposed to danger so that as many of the enemies focus on him instead of the fleeing villagers, but Lyskarhir sure would. He knows he can probably get away and, once the group splits, idly walk up behind them with his longbow out and kill them as they chase the defenseless townsfolk. Chris Amann knows Lyskarhir can do this and Lyskarhir’s battle strategies are only as good as Chris Amann’s strategies, so Chris Amann lets Lyskarhir decide what to do and does his best to fight the duality of his mind so that he (I) can properly roleplay.

As a DM, roleplaying is swapping masks to be whoever the players are talking to. If you’re really good at it like Matt Mercer, you can become entirely new people with every new character. If you’re just alright at it like I am, you can try to change the tone of your voice and at least make them use different words to help the players see the difference between the people they’re talking to. When you’re playing, you’re putting on a mask, a costume, and assuming an entirely new persona. You have to manage the difference between what you know (which, as a regular DM, I know EXACTLY how many hit points each monster we fought had) and what your character knows. Lyskarhir doesn’t know that kobolds have five hit points, but he does know that not a single one has survived being shot by him. Chris Amann knows that Ambush Drakes don’t deal much damage, but all Lyskarhir knows is that there is a pair of wolf-sized dragon-ish lizards running toward him at an alarming pace.

As much as I enjoy storytelling and being a Dungeon Master, I will never be as excited by a gameplay moment as I was when my Elven fighter survived four wild swings, three of which missed thanks to his excellent planning, that left him with one single hit point and the final attack he needed to take down the champion of the enemy forces. Even if the DM let me get away with 1 hp because I’d gotten lucky enough to reduce an enemy that should have wiped the floor with me to the single digits, it won’t change how great it felt to emerge victorious from a fight that went better than it had any right to.

Now, three hours after the fight concluded (which is when I’m writing this), I am still jittery and excited about that moment. I want more. I’m reminded of how much I love playing, of the highs and lows of tabletop gaming that you feel as a player who can only do their best in the given situation. I miss it. I wish I could get more of it. But it also feels pretty great to be reminded of the experiences I can provide to other people when I run games for them. I just hope I get to keep doing both as the world shifts and changes in the face of this pandemic.

Bringing Social Distancing to Your TTRPG

Planning your next Dungeons and Dragons session but unsure how the burgeoning pandemic will affect attendance? Wondering how much Purell you’ll need to clean all your dice after you roll them on the table? Unsure how to handle taking turns to bring the food when your increasing paranoia about getting sick has granted you the ability to see the germs wafting out of everyone’s mouths as they breathe?

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Tabletop Highlight: Dice and the Laws of Probability

If you pick up and roll a d20, you have a 1 in 20 chance of rolling any given number. If you pick it up again and roll it, you have a 1 in 20 change of getting the same number despite the fact that, if you’d considered this from the outset, you’d have had a 1 in 400 change of rolling the same number. If you rolled it a third time, it’s still 1 in 20 as roll it but, as a concept, is also 1 in 8000.

Mathematically speaking, the 1 in 8000 chance represents all potential outcomes for rolling a twenty-sided die three times in succession with the goal of it being the same number each time, but technically only if you pick which number it is in advance. If you say “any number” three times, the chance is really 1 in 400 because the first roll just sets the target number rather than affecting the probability of getting it three times in a row. But, if you talk about it afterwords, you still had a 1 in 8000 chance of rolling that exact sequence.

Clearly, the probability of this is a bit fucky because anyone who has played D&D can tell you, you do not need to roll a d20 8000 times in order to roll three natural twenties in a row. In 5e, this exact sequence is a little less remarked upon because if you roll a single “natural” 20, you critically succeed at whatever the roll was about (some variations on this apply since that’s technically a house rule that is widely used rather than a rule suggested by the D&D books). You don’t need to roll anything else. In the previous popular version of D&D, 3.5, you had to roll to confirm your critical hit and almost everyone played with the custom rule that rolling two 20s in a row mean you went from scoring a critical hit to potentially killing your target with a single hit. If you rolled a third 20, your target was just dead because it had been made clear the dice gods wanted them dead.

As a DM in charge of NPCs in combat and in social encounters, I typically make more dice rolls than any one of my players. As a result I have a tendency to see more extremes than most of my players. That being said, it doesn’t account for my ability to roll three natural twenties as frequently as I do. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve roll three natural ones in a roll because the number is zero. The most I’ve ever rolled is two. Yet I’ve also rolled five natural twenties in a row. I also have a high tendency to roll in the upper third of numbers on any standard die I roll. I like to joke with my friends that prettier dice roll better, but it doesn’t matter for me. Any die I pick up can do this.

I can’t explain it any way but this: I have a huge amount of dice luck. It doesn’t apply to any kind of chance-oriented situation since I’ve only ever won one thing in a drawing or lottery, and I don’t think I’ve ever been dealt a decent hand in any card game, but I always roll high with dice. Specifically, high. Not “well.” My friend was working on a game where you needed to roll under certain numbers in order to succeed and I failed literally every check I ever rolled in the two 3-hour sessions we played that game. For whatever reason, I roll high on dice.

Which is an incredibly frustrating knack to have as a DM. I’ve killed more players due to my own good dice rolls than because of my players’ poor roles or bad decisions. As a player in other people’s games, it can be frustrating or seem like cheating when I succeed with aplomb more frequently than the rest of the table put together. I’ve been called on it a dozen or so times and now I just roll my dice in the open as a player. If they call me on it then, I offer to re-roll with anyone’s dice and still, I succeed. This is one of the reasons I always get nervous about the idea of playing in a game shop. It only takes one person losing their temper and accusing you of cheating to make you not want to play with strangers any more.

So when I roll three twenties in a row and insta-kill two player characters, I sigh heavily and move on with my life. As do my players. It’s not like I tried. I didn’t choose to be an outlier on the bellcurve that is the laws of probability.

I actually took a statistics class in college, back when I was studying psychology, and I have to say that most statistics and most probability is a bunch of bullshit when it comes to explaining how the world works. Statistics are helpful because they are part of understanding how the world works on a conceptual level, but all you have to do is look into the Monty Hall Problem to realize it is a difficult science with far more factors than is readily apparent which makes it far too complex for most of us to understand without a great deal of explanation.

Anyway, the real purpose of this piece is so that I have something I can link to when my players complain about how frequently I roll natural 20s in our D&D games and so other people can appreciate that yes, sometimes your luck really is just that good/bad. You have no one to blame for your dice rolls but yourself since not even the uncaring mathematical universe controls them as we can clearly see from the fact that I just dumped out my bag of d20s at my desk and had five twenties out of the 27 dice I rolled.