Tabletop Highlight: The Appeal of the Classics and Why Fifth Edition is Perfect for That.

Some days, all I really want to do is throw aside all of my current Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in favor of returning to what I always call the “simple roots” of the game. My main campaign is a complex game with political intrigue, long-term mysteries, a fully customized world, a huge history full of references for my players to explore, a whole range of villains the players can kill or continuously encounter, and is an absolute delight to run despite being completely exhausting. I put a lot of work into keeping the campaign running smoothly and making sure my players are enjoying themselves, so I often fantasize about running something a little simpler. Something smaller-scale, really.

I have a tendency to let my imagination run away from me so even something I’ve described as a “shiggles” (shits-and-giggles) campaign winds up with a complex political landscape and more customizations than I can easily manage without a lot of reference work. My main campaign was supposed to be a simple campaign, focused around a small area and with tons of adventure for the players to find without pulling in politics and “Grand Adventure Across the World!” so I could enjoy running without constantly exhausting myself. That plan lasted maybe half a dozen sessions before I thought of a great story I could tell my friends. I don’t regret it and I enjoy running my campaign, but I’m starting to crave something a little simpler again.

Starting to play the fifth edition of D&D has magnified the craving. The system is set up much more simply. For example, the numbers are easier to manage across the board in fifth edition versus any prior edition. My main campaign, using the 3.5 edition set of rules, has a rogue with an Armor Class (how difficult it is to hit someone with an attack) of 19 and a scout/ranger with an AC of 31-35 depending on how much he’s moved during his turn. Depending how much effort each character puts into their AC, this gap could shrink to nothing or grow to be even larger. As a result, it is difficult to give my players enemies that are a threat to the higher-AC characters without being over-powering to the lower-AC characters. The same goes for attack bonuses (the bonus a character gets when attacking that contributes to their attempt to overcome their opponent’s AC) since the Paladin can get a bonus of 20 or higher while most other characters of the same level are working with something in the 10-14 range. This also complicates things for the same reason the AC disparity complicates things.

In fifth edition, the bonuses don’t get much higher than 15 and ACs rarely hit 30 for anyone. There’s very little ability for a focused, driven player to get their character’s attack bonus or AC to a level that would make it almost impossible for an enemy to fight them. In fifth edition, it is super easy to fudge numbers as I need to since the players will have a smaller range for me to consider. In 3.5, it can be difficult to fudge numbers because they fudge for everyone and all stats were NOT created equal. This means I need to spend more time on the front end making sure the encounters are balanced so that the low-AC rogue who turns invisible before literally every attack (which means he can only attack every other turn at most) has the ability to not only survive the fight but contribute to the damage at a level that at least comes close to the amount the scout/ranger and Paladin can dish out in their frequently optimal situations.

In 5th edition, all I’d really need to do is make sure I’ve got a general idea of the location and purpose of whatever the players decide to explore. I can make up numbers on the spot, fill in encounters as dictated by the players’ ability to handle them, and even make an easy encounter a bit more difficult by just making everything a bit tougher. I’d be able to focus on maps and letting my players explore than needing to quietly direct them behind the scenes so they wind up someone I’ve got prepared for them. Hell, I could build the entire thing early on and just give them a continuous string of “the mayor’s daughter was kidnapped” and “there’s some gnolls out in a cave who’re raiding merchant caravans” quests until they got tired of playing or have literally bought the entire country they lived in with all of their fabulous adventurer wealth. The whole story would be about creating their legacy and achieving fame and fortune rather than some problem in the world that only they can fix.

In my mind, that’s classic Dungeons and Dragons. I’m willing to bet D&D has always been a pretty even mixture of the simpler style stories of just wandering around a world full of danger and treasure and of being sent on a quest to defeat a series of sequentially stronger Big Bad Evil Guys. I just have a tendency to run campaigns that are mostly the latter and hear about wonderful, fun campaigns other people played in that are the former. I want to run one of the simpler style campaigns, or maybe even a pre-made campaign. It would be interesting to be able to focus on the stuff specific to being a Dungeon Master instead of a story creator when running a game. I bet I’d learn a lot about what makes for good tabletop storytelling.

Tabletop Highlight: The Action Economy in D&D

One the things I’ve noticed as I play more and more 5th edition D&D is that the changes to the action economy have a huge impact on the way the combat encounters play out. I can’t help comparing it to the 3.5 edition campaigns I run and play in. Overall, they’re very similar, sharing the same major points. Beyond that, the similarities start to break apart and each version tends toward the overall design patterns of each system. 5th edition tends toward simpler types of actions and broader classification while 3.5 tends toward greater variety but a rather extreme degree of complication required to access that greater variety.

In 5th edition, there are four types of actions a player can take in a single round (the time it takes for all characters and monsters in an encounter to take their individual turns): A “movement,” an “action,” a “bonus action,” and a “reaction.” There are also “free actions” but those are given at the DM’s discretion and can be used for saying something brief or certain skill checks depending on the DM’s decisions. A “movement” is exactly what it sounds like, plus a few other things. Your character can move up to their maximum per-term distance or do some sort of movement based action like standing up, climbing, jumping, or dropping to the ground. An “action” is a very broad classification encompassing everything from attacking other people to casting spells to interacting with other people or the environment. A “bonus action” can only be used as a result of a power granted to your character by their class or by a magic item. This can be any other classification of action, but only a specific action per power. For instance, a rogue gets a bonus action that lets them run away from enemies during combat or hide themselves after attacking. The last type of action is a “reaction” and that is a very specific subset actions that can be granted by your class or are one of a small set available to all characters: counterattacks as enemies pass you, cast certain spells, or use an action you prepared.

During the early levels of a 5e game, most characters use only movements and actions, occasionally dipping into reactions. At higher levels, most characters have a variety of bonus actions to pick from and sometimes ever class abilities or spells that give them additional actions. This keeps combat encounters moving relatively quickly for early levels but can bog down combat a bit at later levels. An added complication at later levels is the introduction of “legendary actions.” These are actions available to a certain class of powerful monster, typically used as boss monsters, that give them additional actions they can take when it isn’t their turn. This can help offset the ability for a group of high-level characters to gang up on a single monster and destroying it before it can do anything because they have so many actions they can collectively take each round.  That way a legendary monster is attacking the characters just as many times as they are attacking it.

In 3.5, there are a greater variety of actions. There are “full-round actions,” “free actions” (that function the same as the 5e classification of the same name), “standard actions,” “move actions,” “swift actions,” “immediate actions,” and the dubious titled “no action.” “Move actions” and “standard actions” are basically the same as 5th edition’s “movement” and “action” classifications. A “swift action” is similar to a reaction, but on your turn. It is used for certain types of spells or activating certain magic items. An “immediate action” is a specific subset of “swift actions” that can be used at any time, even when it isn’t your turn. The “no action” is used for minor shifts of footing (like turning in the space you already occupy) or for delaying your entire turn until a different time. The “full-round action” is a type of action that uses all of your other actions at once to do something big like cast a difficult spell or perform a few attacks at once.

From almost the very first levels of 3.5, characters have access to things that use all of their action types. While the number of things they can do with these actions is limited, a clever player can find a way to put them all to use. As the players level up, the opportunities provided by all of these actions only increases. The only thing preventing individual turns at later levels from lasting forever is how difficult it can be to parse through the actions available to a character and which actions are used by what abilities. The rules are often open to interpretation or buried deep in a seemingly unrelated section. The balance is that since most people can’t figure out how to exploit the action variety in 3.5, it usually never becomes a problem. While certain monsters can make use the variety of actions available, most cannot. Without legendary actions, most big, solo monsters are at even more of a risk than their 5e counterparts because they only get to attack once their turn and can be quickly killed before they have a chance to attack plenty of people. 3.5 counters this somewhat by giving solo monsters abilities to damage lots of people or have a chance to take people out of the fight temporarily.

As a DM, I prefer the simpler 5e action economy. Each action is its own thing and cannot be turned into a different action type. In 3.5, there is an action hierarchy and bigger actions can be used to get an extra action of a smaller type. A standard action can become any other kind of action, while a move action can become a swift action or immediate action. This means that a lot of tracking needs to happen so I can make sure my players aren’t abusing the system by taking multiple swift actions when they shouldn’t be able to do so. The action economy gets incredibly complicated once people start trading actions around or using abilities to change things so that something that’s usually a standard action now happens twice as a swift action.

The longer I play 5th edition, the more I consider swapping to use only that system. I’d miss the variety and options I have in 3.5, but it would make my individual sessions much easier to run. I’ll probably never leave 3.5 because I want to tell a good story more than anything, but I can dream.

Tabletop Highlight: Weapons of Legacy

I love world creation. I like making up complex worlds with a lot going on and creating a sense of history for the world. I want to make it feel like it stretches beyond the story being told now and, if things go well, that it will continue one for ages to come. That can always be a tricky prospect in any story-telling format, but it can be especially tricky in D&D because no one cares about the past unless you find ways to tie what is going on now to the past. The same can be said of books, but generally the characters in a book are more easily maneuvered into seeing the importance of the past than people playing characters in a D&D campaign.

While there are an endless number of details you can use to draw attention to your campaign’s history and what went on before the characters showed up, not every player is going to be willing to let their attention be drawn. Even then, a lot of the historic information feels like it has been created just to add motivation or information to a present situation, so the depth is lost. My favorite way to add some depth beyond constant references to things that happened long ago and ancient ruins that weigh down their halls with history is a mechanic that D&D 3.5 called Weapons of Legacy. It even has its own book by the same name.

The idea is that certain weapons (or armor, shields, or general items) had so much magic and power invested in them by someone that they started taking on a life of their own. They became these immensely powerful things that show up throughout history, in the hands of different owners who just add to the thing’s legacy. There are a whole bunch of pre-made items in the book and each one has stories about how the legacy item came to bear its current legacy, what has been done with it since then, and where it might be waiting for a new bearer. It even has rules for making custom weapons of legacy, either for enterprising DMs who want to add depth to their world or for players who want to create their own legacies as their characters grow in power.

I enjoy creating legacies as characters grow because it can be really fun for their legacy item to suddenly manifest powers when they’re in a tight corner. It adds a lot of flavor to the characters as they grow and can help them find direction for their growth when players are otherwise struggling to figure out what is next for their character beyond the continued adventure. I prefer to make them myself, perhaps a little tailored to fit my players, so they’re forced to do some research and learn about the past. I like to tie them to plots going on so players become invested in resolving the plots and ensuring that everything eventually gets resolved rather than forgotten about.

The part I enjoy the least is the number of feats and penalties involved in a weapon of legacy. Sure, they’re often WAY more powerful than any other single item in 3.5, but I feel like the penalties take away from the fun and power the players are supposed to feel as a result of the legacy. I don’t mind if my players wind up a little over-powered because it makes them feel like they’re powerful enough to change history. That is, of course, until I throw a dragon turtle at them that nearly takes out the entire party and would have if the entire party besides the Bard weren’t strikers who can deal high damage to single targets. True story.

Honestly, the flavor parts of the legacy items are my favorite parts. I like coming up with the origins and history of the item, in addition to what the Weapons of Legacy book calls the “omen,” or the thing that hints that this isn’t just an ordinary weapon. Combining that with the Individual Magic Effects from the Goblins webcomic makes for some REALLY fun effects when a character picks up and uses a legacy item. They’re all-around fun for me to make and add to my campaign, my players love the power and history they add, and cool stuff (like a dagger made from the largest piece of a shattered Reaper’s scythe) is cool.

Tabletop Highlight: Working with Your Players in D&D

I know I write about D&D a lot. I have a lot to say about it. Aside from general things like “video games” or “books,” I don’t think I’ve spent more of my leisure time on anything other than this campaign I’m running. I’m constantly running over details, thinking about what I think should come next, and trying to figure out what my players are going to want to see next. After the travesty that was the collapse of my first D&D campaign, way back in college (fun fact: it fell apart almost exactly 6 years ago), I take my players’ input, ideas, and desires much more seriously.

I did a good job, back then, of listening to what my players wanted and there were a lot more factors involved in the collapse of the campaign other than my DMing, but I know it certainly didn’t help things. Now, I listen, implement, and predict. I play mostly with people I know fairly well and I generally don’t get into “serious” story stuff until I know what everyone wants well enough to produce a story they want to star in. Before then, I keep it super generic, roll with whatever they respond well to, and do whatever I can to help them figure out where their characters are going.

My best example is a story I’ve referenced a few times now. How the Half-Elf (previously Halfling (previously Rilkan)) lost his body and why Raise Dead wouldn’t work on his Halfling corpse.

The campaign started simply. The players all made level 1 characters using my slightly-modified 3.5 rules and they were all acting as guards for a colony. Typical first-level stuff since this world sends colonies of mixed race out into the wilderness in order to expand the territory held by the federation and sent a large quantity of guards along because colonies had a bad habit of disappearing or falling to wilderness creatures. In exchange, the guards were given parcels of land, money to start a business in a new economy that was backed by the government, and any treasure they accumulated over the course of their duties.

They colony ran into the usual wilderness problems like kobolds, corpse-eating dogs, and zombies. It quickly became apparent that some force wanted the colony gone, so they players set out to discover what that force was. After a few horrible accidents that resulted in the death of a temporary character and the arrival of a permanent character for a new player, they settled in to figuring things out and protecting their colony.

I don’t know if you’ve ever played first level characters with new-ish players, but they often wind up changing their minds about the direction they want their characters to go in. Rather than scraping the character and making a new one, I usually let them make a few adjustments during the first half-dozen sessions. This time, the players got all the way through their first few levels before the Paladin and the Rogue told me they wanted to change-up their characters.

At this point, I had the basics of a story percolating and I instantly had an idea of how to work in their proposed changes AND give them a plot hook none of them would ever want to ignore. So the Rilkan’s subplot became a major plot and the necklace he inherited started becoming a bigger problem than he anticipated. Suffice it to say that, several failed Will Saves later, the demon inhabiting the necklace convinced him to free her of the last abjurations holding her in place and she then used her powers to displace his soul in his body.

After that, she trapped his soul, stunned the whole party (except the Paladin), and gave them to the rather old Black Dragon they were trying to trick. Bargains were struck, the Paladin learned that he couldn’t solo a Black Dragon, and the Black Dragon got to save on shackles because the Paladin had one fewer hands.

Eventually, they were rescued by the demon’s holy opposite. A “minor” deity saw their plight and a few other things that the players might not know about. Being concerned with Justice, he offered them assistance so long as they swore to do as he commanded–hunt down the escape demon and contain or destroy her. Needless to say, the party immediately agreed. Even the Rogue’s soul agreed. In exchange, they all got a measure of the deity’s power to bust them out of prison, the paladin got a divine-magic replacement arm that let him bypass some of the requires for a good prestige class, and the Rogue got stuck in the body of a recently-deceased Halfling that had similar, but slightly different training.

All-in-all, the party got exactly what they wanted, I got a plot hook to carry them along, and the Rogue’s player got to deal with the fact that a Raise Dead spell wouldn’t fix him because it’d call the body’s original soul back. Reincarnate was the only way to bring him back to life that time. Now, though, the new body is his and Raise Dead will work again. Only, it is a Half-Elf and they kinda suck in 3.5, unless you’re specifically picking it for character reasons.

I like to work with my players when I can. The rules are plain enough that adjusting or tweaking things is fine with me, so long as my players are doing it because it helps them create the story they want to tell. If all they want is bigger numbers well… Those are fun, but their place is in a different campaign. I am even adapting a fun prestige class for one of my players because it is super awesome for his character’s arc AND it plays into the story I’m telling so while I might as well have scripted it. A lot of the time, the players are your partners in telling the story, so hearing them out can’t go wrong. They’re just as invested as you are, especially if they’ve been your players for two years, now.

Tabletop Highlight: First Reactions to Fifth Edition

Over the weekend, I took my first deep dive into D&D Fifth Edition. I’ve made characters and even briefly played it before, but this was the first time I actually explored characters rather than rushing through the process. Carefully considered each class and, after looking at what I had to work with, settled on playing a Sorcerer. The first D&D character I ever played and the most fun D&D character I ever played were both sorcerers, so the class is near and dear to my heart.

My initial impression was that the system is complex, strange, and makes very little sense. Over time, though, that shifted. The more time I spent with it, the easier the system seemed. So many of the 3.5 rules I know by heart and so many of the choices I’d made in a 3.5 campaign just aren’t options. Feats are entirely optional, ability scores cannot be increased over 20 via natural level progression, and everything in the system feels a lot more balanced. My past remarks about the 5th edition being more like addition than 3.5’s multiplication still stands, but that means that all of the classes still wind up in more or less the same neighborhood.

The biggest revelation I had while exploring the system more fully was the way it lends itself toward role-playing. 3.5 can be entirely numbers with no role-playing unless the players and DM are specifically making room for it. 5th edition doesn’t necessitate role-playing, but it does make it a much more regimented part of the character creation process. There’s room on the standard character sheet for flavor text about who your character is, the backgrounds provide a basis for less experienced players, and even the class features help you figure out who your character is based on what specializations you pick.

The hardest thing for me to learn is the new rules around combat and actions. I’m used to poison results being specific to the poison used and much more complicated skills that play off of each other and are full of conditional modifiers. The simplified “advantage, neutral, or disadvantage” system takes all of the conditional stuff and wraps it up in one neat little package. I can see combat and skill encounters are going to be much easier for new players to handle since the math isn’t as potentially complicated. I’m going to miss my ridiculous bonuses and OP bullshit that I can pull when I’m feeling petulant in 3.5, but I can see myself running a lot of 5th edition games because it’ll be so much simpler. Instead of spending time looking up rules players are asking about, I can focus on storytelling, good encounters, and keeping the game moving along. I’m really looking forward to how the pacing changes between the two systems.

That being said, I think I’m going to stick to 3.5 for my big story campaigns. 5th edition is still relatively new and I can’t find as many resources for it as I can find for 3.5, so it would be a lot harder to make up some of the stuff I have for 3.5.  5th edition’s power scales are too linear to be able to just fudge a few numbers and make it work, even at mid to high levels.

This past weekend, I stuck to mostly first level things for my sorcerer (and a rogue as a backup character for when my aggressive, “think’s he’s a tank,” sorcerer gets smeared on a dungeon floor). Next weekend, if I’ve got the time, I’m going to look into future levels, magic items, and how all the rules have changed so I can start planning out a campaign to run in 5th edition. I’ve got a lot of friends who want to play now and 5th edition seems like it would lend itself well to online play, so I might actually be able to help my friends who don’t have anyone to play with in their areas, finally. That’d be great. I like running big games full of organized chaos and laughter. Even if I can’t see everyone’s face, I think this would be a lot of fun to do.

The Order of the Stick Has Stuck With Me

One of my favorite webcomics, which happens to also be my favorite D&D webcomic, is Order of the Stick. If you’ve been in the webcomics consumption business or D&D business for a while, you have likely heard of it. It has been going on since September of 2003 and, despite a few setbacks and being the poster child of how too much success can be a bad thing, it has passed 1100 pages. What started as a way to joke about the rules for the new D&D 3.5 release has developed into an epic tale that still manages to find the time to make jokes about the rules.

The first comics are fairly formulaic, by today’s standards. The party is introduced to the readers and jokes are made about obscure rules or the tendency for player characters to fail simple checks, like seeing the monsters immediately behind them. Then Evil Opposites are introduced, a Lich at the end of the Dungeon is encountered, and then the party is released into the wider world to wreak havoc and eventually get railroaded into some new plot or another. They go from light-storytelling at the start so jokes can remain the focus to telling an epic story of personal growth, the consequential struggles of mortals in the matters of gods, and need of individuals to act even when they feel out of their depth. There’s on particular moment, as the webcomic approached and passed its 1000th update that has stuck with me. The combination of the art change and the focus on the growth of one of the characters culminated in a single splash page that still gives me chills.

For a long time, my idea of playing or running Dungeons and Dragons was to create a place for players to sort of just stumble through the world. There was supposed to be a story, but it was secondary to making sure the players got to make their jokes and kill a bunch of stuff. Reading through Order of the Stick showed me there was a lot more that I could do within the world of D&D since the writer/artist, Rich Burlew, manages to tell the entire story without departing from the world. It taught me a lot of how to trim a story to fit within the confines of a D&D campaign, how to ensure my players had agency, and how to even do a bit of railroading without ruining the story. Beyond even that, it taught me so much about how to play within the rule set, how to creatively express myself in a variety of character types, and how to add nuance to the rather black and white D&D morality system without making everything entirely relative or perception-based.

While it managed all of that, the story created a wonderful mixture of sympathetic villains, unsympathetic villains, good guys who get screwed over, and bad guys who get better than they deserve. As soon as you venture outside of the online comics, to the book only publications or the PDFs that were created as a part of the “too much success” Kickstarter (what started out as a cheap drive to fund reprinting a popular book wound up raising millions of dollars and forcing Rich Burlew to take time off of the comics in order to work on meeting the commitments he made during the event, some of which is still ongoing). My favorite story, about my favorite character, is one of those PDFs. How the Paladin Got His Scar is a tale about personal strength, commitment to something larger than yourself, second chances, and choosing to live for something while still being willing to die if it means that everyone else will be safe. I read it at a time I really needed it and I still go back to read it again when I feel like I need to strengthen my commitment to something that feels impossible. Such as updating my blog every day for a year.

People talk about stories or books that made them who they are today and Order of the Stick is one of mine. I would not be as skilled a storyteller as I am without this comic. I would not be the same creative, twisty DM and player without it. I would not be me without it. If you’re looking for something to read and enjoy jokes about D&D and learning about what it means to be a leader or the price of power, check it out at Giantitp.com. Also, yes, the stick figure drawing does improve over time, but it remains stick figures until near the 900 mark, when it improves without losing its original charm.

 

Tabletop Highlight: Interrogating Prisoners in D&D

Now that my campaign has reached what I would call “mid-level” and the players have gotten a handle on how to play the game, I’m starting to see them use new approaches to delicate situations. Previously, they’d just kill everything and figure out what to do afterwards (though that still happens sometimes). Now, they’ll actually plan how to kill everything and sometimes actually stop one step short of killing everything by just knocking everything out. This means they sometimes have prisoners and now need to practice interrogating prisoners. They’ve had a few instances of interrogation previously, but there’s a big difference between interrogating a grunt and interrogating a commander.

The time they interrogated a commander, a politician who had been working with their enemies, they had a lot of trouble. I, however, had a lot of fun. He was a sorcerer with a high intelligence, so he was able to use a combination of his charming personality, people/manipulation skills, and specific wordings that were always technically correct to avoid the truth compulsions they had set up. Eventually, they figured out how to trap him enough that he’d admit to something. Except they forgot about teleportation magic so he just ran away and went into hiding. Since he was a priority target who had a lot of information they wanted, it was easy to justify expending the resources they did.

During a much more recent session, they captured a few mooks and their mook leader. They managed to keep everyone alive and accepted the surrender of one of the less-combative troglodytes. After getting them out of the dungeon entry way and back to their camp, they set about doing a basic verbal interrogation of their prisoner, relying on Sense Motive skill checks (thanks to the addition of a DM PC support-only Bard to balance their party) to ascertain truth. It worked well for them because what they overheard prior to attacking this troglodyte and his companions led them to believe he was an unwilling stooge to a much bigger threat. They were eventually able to win him over with kindness, gentle words, and a good Diplomacy check from the party’s rogue.

Thankfully, they were able to keep the second interrogation tasteful. Though it’s not like the rogue had much choice, given that the paladin was looking over his shoulder. Still, they managed to solve their first problem without violence and learned enough to be able to prioritize their actions once they went through the door into dungeon proper. Unfortunately, they immediately used that information to plan violence and a hostile exchange with the other troglodytes and kobolds. It worked out alright for them in the end, since they were up against a bunch of low-CR (challenge rating: the difficulty of a particular monster or encounter to be used in comparison to a party’s equivalent number) monsters and only a couple of higher-CR monsters. Using the narrow hallways and a pit trap, they manage to isolate the various bits of combat and deal with the situation in such a way that most of the mooks got to live. Which they were then able to interrogate, much more easily this time since they’d already shown them all the spectre of violent death when the paladin obliterated the kobold captain in a single round.

Personally, I dislike violent interrogation. I would have a hard time walking my players through any kind of torture scenario because I have a hard time dealing with violence against helpless people. I don’t mind inventive torture, like the time one of my players invented taco bell and used the resulting–and revolting–mish-mash of rats, field grass, orc “cheese,” and acid splash (the 0th level spell) slathered between hardtack biscuits to successfully convince a captured orc to spill the beans. The character truly believed he was giving the orc a tasty snack. It was too back the rogue (who was the only who spoke orcish) had a bit of a sadistic streak, letting the poor addled wizard believe the orc was begging for additional tacos. Heck, if you can make a good intimidate check and are a convincing role-player, you can make a pile of wood shavings look like a terrible torture. You don’t need to skin someone while they’re still alive, using a cleric to continuously restore their hit points, in order to get answers.

Even outside of the disgust I feel at that stuff, there’s plenty of real-world examples, especially in modernity, of violent interrogation being not only useless but actively unhelpful. Better to befriend a prisoner and get them on your side than to make them beg for mercy and make up whatever they think you want to hear. Most D&D doesn’t go that in-depth, but I don’t mind putting in the extra work since it discourages unscrupulous behavior and creative thinking. Better a creative, challenging player than a blunt, simple one.

Tabletop Highlights: D&D 3.5 Versus Pathfinder

To be entirely fair, there isn’t a big difference between these two rule sets at a macro level. Pathfinder was intended as the next step of D&D 3.5, trimming down the rules to remove complications and re-balancing the game’s power so the often under-powered martial classes could stay relevant during higher levels. As a result, it is fairly common to adapt things from one version to the other. For instance, most of my D&D games incorporate the character sheets and skills of Pathfinder, along with a few other rules–such as cantrips (the most basic, lowest-leveled spells) can be cast without limitation and all combat maneuvers are performed using the rules from Pathfinder rather than 3.5.

I find that combat runs a little more smoothly, skill allocation is easier, and general player satisfaction is higher when I incorporate these rules. It allows me to bring in a bit more power to skill-based characters without running into what I believe is the biggest problem of bringing Pathfinder rules and character stuff into 3.5. As a whole, the core components (character classes and racial abilities, mostly) of Pathfinder achieved a state of balance by increasing everything’s power. There are exceptions, of course, but it can be frustrating to try to balance a character built using 3.5 rules with a character built using Pathfinder rules.

3.5 can also be hard to adapt to Pathfinder because it has a similar problem. The core components may be weaker, but 3.5 has a wonderful array of extra feats, class variations, racial features, and poorly balanced errata that make breaking the game much easier. I can build character with limitless power in 3.5 and I’ve yet to find a way to even break the game on the same scale with Pathfinder. I can make a character that can easily move a mile every two minutes (and I know I can get it higher if I try) in 3.5 and that’s just silly. I can create cell towers and rail guns. I can do pretty much anything, if my GM doesn’t know to stop me and I’m feeling perverse. The only thing that redeems 3.5 is that it takes very specific knowledge (which anyone can now find online) to build those things and your average player doesn’t want to break the game.

When it comes down to determining which variation you want to play, 3.5 or Pathfinder, I find it breaks down fairly well. Either works great for role-playing and story-telling, but 3.5 works really well for players who want complex builds or have more experience. Pathfinder is great for people with less experience or if you want to keep your campaign simpler and more focused. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to remind a player in one of my 3.5 campaigns that, just because he found it in a rule book, doesn’t mean his character knows about it or would even be able to obtain it. This has been happening a lot in my weekly campaign, which can be frustrating at times because he keeps accidentally trying to min-max his character. If we were playing this campaign using Pathfinder, I doubt he’d be able to get up to even a quarter as much crap as he does.

The few times I’ve played Pathfinder, it worked really well for introducing new players. The abilities were much more clear and I didn’t feel like I needed to spend a few days browsing books, PDFs, and forums to figure out how I wanted to build my character. Every time I’ve gone and done a pick-up-and-play campaign at a game store, it has been a Pathfinder campaign. I’m certain the latest edition of D&D (5.0) would be just as easy to pick up and play, but I feel like Pathfinder has more depth to it for the people who want it. You can still get multipliers to your power level instead of just adding to it.

I really want to play more Pathfinder, mostly to learn more about it. I don’t own any of the books and everything I’ve read about it has been what they released online as part of their System Reference Document (search the version you want to learn about and “SRD” and you should wind up with all the rules you need to play). I’d like more experience, both as a player and as a GM. It can be fun to experiment with different rules and see how far you can go, but there’s also strong appeal to playing without all of the crazy extra stuff. Just like when I want to play Skyrim without any mods sometimes, despite loving what the mods do to the game.

Tabletop Highlight: House Rules and Homebrew for D&D 3.5

I’ll admit that I’m probably a little biased when it comes to which D&D version is the best. Almost all of my playing and running has been in 3.5 or the common mix of 3.5 and Pathfinder because the 3.5 set of rules is expansive. An expansive set of rules means it is relatively easy to find rules for something that can be nudged to fit what you want to add. Additionally, the patterns created by the existing rules make it easy to extrapolate how the system should apply to something without rules or how to change existing rules without breaking the game. As a DM who loves to tell a good story, these two things make 3.5 easily the most appealing rule set out there.

While I do all of my high-level planning and preparation ahead of time, there is a lot of small stuff that comes up during sessions I can never be prepared for. Particular shopkeepers, NPCs the players want to talk to, city layouts, the state of the black market, and so many other things my players will randomly and inconsistently want to know. In addition to that sort of thing, no amount of preparation is going to prepare me for what I need to have prepared when the players decide to take a path I hadn’t foreseen or do something that requires rules that either do not exist or that need to be modified so they’ve actually got a fair chance to fail or succeed.

For instance, I like to give my players options when they spectacularly fail certain types of rolls. A common house rule is that a string of critical fails on attack rolls can instantly kill the player’s character. I like the idea of this house rule, but a lot of players will get upset if they accidentally kill themselves like this because it feels just so stupid and random. If they died because of a choice they made, at least they feel like they earned it. So, instead of just killing them outright, I give them the choice of taking the death or taking something entirely random that could possibly be worse but would allow them a chance to survive. This way, they feel like they still have control of their character and, should they die as a result of the something else.

The only problem is that I have to make up whatever is about to happen without any preparation. A new monster, some interesting application of the rules, or even an entirely new encounter or dungeon. All of this stuff is the sort of thing I typically prepare beforehand because making it up is difficult. Without the expansive 3.5 rule set and all of the online resources people have created for the 3.5 rule set, it would be impossible.  Since I know how the basic rules are applied across the entire system and can find a bunch of different templates, abilities, and creature types, I can find a way to meld all of it together into whatever new creature or situation I want to introduce to my players.

This sort of new rule or new creature is called either “homebrew” or a “house rule.” Homebrew is anything made up by someone other than an official D&D source. A house rule is anything that a DM indicates is a rule that applies only to the particular campaign they’re running, though it may show up in multiple campaigns. Homebrew often involves house rules and most house rules are homebrew. A house rule that isn’t a homebrew rule is usually used to exclude something. For instance. I almost always ban the Tome of Battle because it creates these ridiculously over-powered characters. The only time I’ve used it was to create a tough fight for my players by giving a recurring character levels in a class from it and the one character nearly took out an entire group of six players of the same level. That’s too much power. Most of my house rules are exclusions, since a by-product of the expansive 3.5 rule set is stuff that is over-powered as a result of one-off campaign modules that introduce new rules and I have players who like to visit forums to find the best way to make their characters O-P.

My favorite house rule adds two homebrew systems to the game, called Individual Magic Effects and Character Legacies. The IME rule is taken directly from the webcomic that inspired it, giving characters a particular visual-only effect whenever they use magic or that affects the way their magic items work. Character legacies are a bit more complicated, but can give the player characters bonuses or penalties to their character depending on what the legacy means. Got a player obsessed with glory and hunting? He or She gains bonuses when they prove their prowess and bring back trophies, but gain penalties when their quarry bests them or they fail to find it at all. The bonuses and penalties can change depending on what the character hunts and how the player decides the character will act. An egotistical hunter might have charisma penalties for dealing with some people but a bigger bonus for dealing with most people while a more friendly hunter might have bonuses when it comes to bartering or doing hunt preparation.

Neither one of them has much impact on the game in the long-run since the bonuses for legacies are relatively small, compared to what magic items and feats can give players and IMEs are only visual effect (which only help or hinder in very specific situations). They just encourage my players to try to play their character more consistently and to stick to their role-playing when they might otherwise abandon it in favor of being more effective in a given situation. This is my favorite type of homebrew. Adding major rule changes or entire classes is hard to balance. If you ever want to see some ridiculous, over-powered stuff that puts the Tome of Battle to shame, you should check out some of the custom classes people have made and posted to places like the D&D Wiki.

Like a lot of storytelling, deciding how and when to modify the rules for an established game takes a lot of practice and it is easy to accidentally break something even if you’re very careful.  If you keep to a guiding principle such as “everyone should be having fun,” then you should be fine. The rules don’t really matter if everyone is having a good time and feeling like they have power in the world.

Tabletop Highlight: D&D 3.5 and Knights

One of my favorite classes to play in Dungeons and Dragons is the 3.5 edition’s Knight. This class is listed in the Player’s Handbook II and is probably the best class to use for the “Tank” role based on class abilities alone. Almost all of their abilities are geared toward grabbing enemy focus, surviving, or protecting their comrades. All of this comes at the cost of a lot of more the damage-oriented abilities or skills you might associate with fighter or barbarian tank builds. So often, a front-line tank fighter or barbarian’s skill set is focused around the idea of “if it is dead, it can’t hurt me or anyone else.” Yes, you can build a fighter’s AC (Armor Class: it determines how difficult it is to hurt you character with an attack) super high while still focusing on damage and you can get a Barbarian enough HP to tank a few disintegrate spells (which are as dangerous as the name implies) without healing, but Knights are focused on both of those things.

As one of the few classes with a d12 hit die (the die used to determine how many hit points the character gains each level), they can have almost as much HP as a barbarian before they start raging. Since their primary focus is staying alive and taking damage so other characters do not, putting the highest attribute score in Constitution is almost a requirement. The second-highest attribute score can work as well, but raising it with magic items as soon as possible is a must because a Knight can never have too many hit points. The alternative attribute for the highest attribute score is actually charisma. A lot of a Knight’s abilities are based on Charisma. Charisma can help a Knight challenge the boss to fight them and only them, grant them and their allies bonuses based on the Knight’s inspirational battle cries, and can help Knights come up with clever challenges to cause all enemies to charge them. Outside of battle, a Knight’s charisma can help them move through the social circles graced by royalty and nobility as they further their knightly cause.

As they progress through their levels, Knights enjoy a full Base Attack Bonus progression (one point per level) but, oddly, have only Will as a primary save. If you look through their abilities, you will find that Knights have abilities that can help them save allies who are being mind-controlled or mind-affected (made afraid, under the power of suggestion, etc), so having a high Will save means they are more likely to remain free long enough to save their companions. Other interesting abilities include being able to prevent enemies from easily moving past you (or using the common rogue trick of tumbling past the tank in order to attack the squishier characters behind them) by causing the space around them to be treated as rough terrain. This means that people cannot simply run past them or tumble past them thanks to the knight’s defensive capabilities. Other abilities include a boost to their AC as a result of using a shield and the ability to take part (and eventually all) of the damage dealt to an adjacent ally. If you’re protecting a spellcaster who gets shot by an arrow or stabbed by a rogue, you can opt to take some of that damage in order to mitigate what might have otherwise been a killing blow.

As far as combat goes, Knights get access to mounted combat feats, along with a lot of technical combat feats through a “bonus” feat system ever few levels. While a Knight may never do a lot of damage, compared to other martial classes, they can still dominate a battlefield riding about on a well-trained mount using a Lance in order to maximize their damage. They also have an ability called “Fighting Challenge” that gives them bonuses against a specific target they’ve challenged to a fight. The Fighting Challenge is a type of “Knight’s Challenge” which also includes things like the “Test of Mettle” which causes all enemies in earshot to focus on attacking you, the “Daunting Challenge” which causes weak enemies to flee in terror, and the “Bond of Loyalty” which allows a Knight to continue making will saves against mind-affecting spells or abilities until the Knight is free or out of Knight’s Challenges.

The most interesting use of the Knight’s Challenge, and what makes them the ultimate tank, is what they earn at 20th level: “Loyalty Beyond Death.” This allows a Knight to spend uses of their Knight’s Challenge to literally continue moving after they’ve functionally died. At 20th level, a Knight will have over 200 hit points. A character typically dies once they pass -10 hit points. A 20th level Knight can spend uses of their Knight’s Challenge to continue moving and acting once their hit points pass below 0 until their body is completely destroyed or they run out of Knight’s Challenges to use. This means they can still be healed back to the point of being alive or just sacrifice their live in one last glorious charge as they face down an ancient, all-powerful dragon or lich in order to buy a village or their allies time to flee.

There any number of other feats that can greatly benefit a Knight as well. Shieldmate lets you provide adjacent allies with an AC bonus based on the shield you use. Heavy Armor Specialization, a feat with dovetails in with a Knight’s ability to ignore movement penalties resulting from wearing Heavy armor, provides you with a permanent reduction to the damage you take as a result of wearing Heavy armor. The proficiency feat for Tower Shields also benefits a Knight because it increases the bonus provided by Shieldmate, increases your AC even more, and lets a Knight use their shield as protection from arrows or AoE (Area of Effect) attacks for anyone who isn’t tough enough to survive them. There is even a feat or a type of enhancement magic for armor and shields that lets your AC bonus from your armor and shield apply against certain magical attacks that normally just need to make contact with a character, rather than break through their armor. With the right builds, a Knight can because an almost unstoppable tanking machine.

I wouldn’t recommend using a Knight as the primary front-line combatant because their damage output is lower than most other martial characters, so they’re not always great picks for 4-person groups, but they work amazingly in larger groups, even if there are no other front-line martial characters. Especially if there are no other front-line martial characters. Next time you need a tank and don’t want to play the lawful good paladin, play a night! They can be lawful anything and their emphasis is more on their knightly oaths than obeying the rules of the land.