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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Tabletop Highlight: Games You Never Want to End

You’ve been running a game with the same group of people for years, now. You’ve done your best to play weekly, but it has still taken the better part of a decade to get from the beginning of the game to the end. Maybe the end was a total party wipe because the fighter did something stupid. Maybe your players resolved all the open plot hooks they were interested in and, after amassing an incredible amount of wealth, have decided to retire. Maybe they finally killed that demon/elder dragon/Tarrasque and they’re officially so strong not even the gods would lightly make a move on them. Whatever the reason, the game as you know it has come to an end. Except no one wants it to end because they all get along, it’s tons of fun to play tabletop games with people, and they had this idea for a character they made a while ago that they’re dying to try…

So you extend the game. If the party-wiped, you’ve got a couple of really fun options and one simpler option. If you want to just keep it all going, then you can have some kind of fail-safe alert a new group of adventurers that the people previously trying to solve some big problem died. They get sent out to collect corpses (maybe revive the players who want to stick with their old characters), and then they carry on in the stead of the previous group. It’s easy, it makes sense in a lot of scenarios, and it makes it easy to get down to playing again. If you want something a little more challenge but that would add some depth to your world, start the party over. Everyone rolls up a new character, maybe not level 1, but probably at a lower level, and a new adventure starts. Whatever the old group was trying to prevent has come to pass during the intervening years (any number is fine, but I like to make sure it’s at least a couple of generations so everyone has a chance to discover all of the ramifications of their failure) and the new group is trying to either fix the problem or facing some new threat in the world created by the death of the older group. This, of course, necessitates that the issue the old party was trying to prevent wasn’t something truly world-ending. If that’s the case, you could always throw out some kind of “incarnation cycle” spin and have the players basically play themselves reincarnated on the new world the gods made in response to the destruction of the old world. There’s a lot of fun opportunities their, including relics from the old world and maybe some kind of special, inherited powers from your previous incarnations. The sky is the limit here.

If all of the characters have decided to retire from their lives of adventuring with their dubiously gotten gains, that opens the door for a generation-spanning game! Maybe the players can roll up the children, adopted or biological, of their old characters. Or, perhaps, the child of someone else’s character. Students or protégés are also fair game. However it happened, they’re playing someone who grew up under the tutelage of a character from the old game and, as a result of something happening (anything from the tragic death of their mentor to a decision to emulate their mentor’s life of adventure), has hit the road to find our what’s on the other side of the horizon/save the world/strike it rich by looting the long-dead corpses of other adventurers and the private homes of the various races who don’t live in the same kind of societies that your adventurers grew up in. Maybe an unresolved plot hook the previous generation chose to ignore has come calling again, perhaps grown more urgent as a result of the passage of time. Maybe one of the magic items or artifacts collected by the previous generation is the key to some plot a new villain has hatched and they used the old hero’s advanced age as an opportunity to put their dastardly plan into motion.

If your players have all gotten to the point where there is nothing left to truly challenge them besides the gods, maybe just start a new campaign in their shadows. The new characters grew up in a world forever changed by the actions of the old characters and are inspired to set out on their own adventures by the legends still living and walking on the mortal plane. This creates a lot of narrative fun for the DM because whatever problems the new characters are given to solve, whatever legends they chase, can’t be big enough to draw the attention of the more powerful adventurers who still live and exert their will upon the world. This can also create a lot of fun situations because you can have players reprise their old characters in role-playing moments, maybe because the new characters are hirelings who the old character is paying to take care of some problem that’s probably beneath their notice or that they don’t really have the time to solve on their own. Or that they just don’t want to deal with, similarly to how most people pay someone to change the oil in their car rather than learn how to do it themselves. Whatever route you choose, it’ll be memorable so long as the incredibly powerful previous characters are still around to pop up now and then. Plus, most players love to see their old characters crop up in a campaign.

Whatever you decide to do, just make sure you talk to the players about it beforehand. Most of them would love to figure out what their characters decided to do after retiring or getting too powerful to be stopped, so that’s a good opportunity for them to become more invested in whatever game comes next. The idea of playing in a world where your old character is walking around and living their life is incredibly inviting. The opportunity to maybe run into them and to see them play out a scenario again is one I, personally, would never pass up.

Tabletop Highlight: What “Hit Points” Mean For You and Your Players

Hit Points. Life. Soul. HPs. Damage. Shields. Power. Lots of different ways to express the same concept. Every game with combat needs them in some manner or another, and they often serve different purposes even if they’re usually the same at the core. Ultimately, whatever they’re called, they’re the numerical or mechanical (as-in “gameplay mechanic”) representation of a character’s ability to survive damage from an enemy before they suffer a lethal blow. This works great in stuff like video games where your character never really speaks about the numbers representing their bodily health unless they’re scripted to break the fourth wall. However, when it comes to tabletop role playing games, you actually need a way for your characters to discuss a numerical representation of their bodily health without breaking the fourth wall. There have been a lot of attempts, but most fall short or simply break the fourth wall rather than entirely shatter it.

Probably my favorite is to take it humorously. Instead of saying “HP” or “Hit Points” in D&D, my players jokingly have their characters ask each other a question: “If you were to compare your health to a number of tomatoes, how many tomatoes would have left?” It was my own joke, initially, that I made during on session when one of the players struggled to convey his character’s hit point total during a bit of a drawn-out fight.  I don’t remember where I got it. I’m not sure if I read it somewhere or just extrapolated it from the popular “D&D Stats Explained with Tomatoes” Reddit post, but it’s something that hung around my head for a while before I stuck it into my players’ heads.

I’m not that much of a role playing stickler that I won’t let my players talk about their skills, abilities, or hit points in concrete terms, but I generally encourage them to get as absorbed into the game as they’re willing to go. It can make it a bit difficult to openly discuss who needs healing the most if no one is allowed to quantify their level of damage, though. Typically, so long as the characters aren’t talking about hit points, I’m fine. The players can talk about them as a concrete concept as much as they’re like since their characters would be able to more easily visually assess the relative health of the other characters around them. It’s really just a way to help the people outside the game bridge the gap between what they know of the game they’re playing and what their characters would just know as a result of being a part of the game.

When it comes to describe hit points and how they work as the Dungeon Master, it can be a little tricky. If your fighter has one hundred hit points and your wizard has forty and your rogue has sixty, then it makes it pretty clear that they can all survive different amounts of punishment. The fight can probably stand to be impaled a few times since being impaled on a spear does around twenty damage. Something much larger, with a horn of some kind, would do much more damage, but the fighter could easily survive one or two hits from even the hardest hitting impaler. Further complicating things is how Armor Class affects the way damage is applied. If your fighter is wearing full-plate and wielding a tower shield but still gets hit, how does that work? Did his opponent find a gap? Did they break through the fighter’s armor? Chop through their shield? Is the fighter’s armor filling up with blood now, or was it just a scratch?

The way I like to think of it, I consider hit points to be a reflection of an individual character’s ability to turn an otherwise lethal or debilitating blow into something minor. Think about a sword-fighting anime. You have two master swordsmen rushing at each other and they swing. These two people were chopping arms off of mooks just five minutes earlier, have both sliced through rocks, and can effortlessly slash down a heavy wooden door. How is it that they only took minor cuts on their arms or cheeks or whatever? They used their skill, gained over the length of their time training and leveling up, to move in such a way that an arm-removing chop just made them bleed a little. The same is true of your fighter and your wizard. They might be the same level, but a fighter is going to be much better at negating the lethality of a hit than a wizard. When they finally run out of hit points, that means they’re cut up and tired enough that they can no longer negate the blows and something that had, seconds before, caused only the smallest red line to appear now removes their hand or arm.

Critical hits are a little more complicated. Generally just walk it up as being a non-lethal hit still, but one that would be severe enough to cause a big scar. Maybe the cut was long but shallow or maybe it was actually a puncture. You can be run-through without damaging anything that’d get you killed. It’s not easy and it’s more likely than not that you’ll get extremely hurt, but a fighter could probably do it a bunch of times in a day.

The one major except to my practices is when a player takes massive damage. In the three point five edition of Dungeons and Dragons, there’s a suggested rule to require a saving throw to avoid death if a player takes massive damage and they define massive damage as something exceeding fifty points in a single attack. Now, there will be characters who go from level one to twenty and never once have fifty hit points. There are characters who, at twentieth level, will be able to laugh off fifty points of damage. Better, in my mind, to make it based on their total hit points. In my campaigns, players can face debilitating injuries if they take half their hit points or more of damage from a single attack. Lost limbs, evisceration, unconsciousness, broken bones, and of those are fair game if they get absolutely wrecked by something. This means that the one hundred hit point fight is much less likely to get a massive damage hit than the wizard, but it makes sense that it’d work that way.

How do you treat hit points in your games? I’d love to hear how you handle the description of losing hit points and accruing damage. Please feel free to comment!

Check out today’s Tabletop Highlight about Hit Points! I cover the roles they play in games and how you can describe your players losing HP in fights! Check it out here!

Tabletop Highlight: Player Fatalism and How to Salvage the Game

I honestly don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but it often feels like every tabletop gamer I know has a story about a game where someone was constantly pessimistic and fatalistic. Someone, perhaps even them, spent an entire session, or even several sessions, throwing their hands up in the air every time something bad happened and complaining that they knew this was going to happen or that there’s no point to them trying any more if they’re just going to die.

This happened recently in one of my games. There’s a player, the one I often bring up as the person who does some dumb stuff or makes questionable decisions (he featured heavily in the “Up for Interpretation” post from three weeks ago) who has been engaging in this kind of behavior lately. To be entirely fair, his character has died as many times as the rest of the party put together and he seems to always come up short when I roll to determine who gets to be the target of whatever is about to happen. Even his rolls tend toward failure when he tries something. He missed a sneak attack that would have insta-killed the enemy spell caster because he rolled in the single digits on his attack. He failed a skill check to make it back to safety afterwards and would have been knocked unconscious if not for an ability of his special weapon that gave him temporary hit points. The poor guy has had it rough.

To be entirely, fair, though, he makes a lot of assumptions and does a lot of stuff without thinking it through. He died during that same fight because he hopped over a barricade to attack an enemy he could have just stabbed from where he was. I let him live because he apparently didn’t realize he could do that and it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t have done it if he could have avoided it seeing as he was so low on hit points. Though, to continue being fair, he also didn’t retreat from the battle or take a back seat once he was down to nothing but his last few hit points either. He’d already seen how much damage his enemies could do with one hit and yet he continued to try to front-line them.

A lot of that behavior and those unneccessary risk-taking could have been a result of his expectation that his current character won’t be much longer for this world. He’s already created a new character to replace him, prompted by my jokes about a TPK, which I’ve managed to avoid so far since the players know when to run. There was a close moment, though, because they messed up some earlier stuff and had to deal with the consequences. That was probably the first time they were pushed to their limits from a marathon of battles rather than a single tough monster. It was winnable, though. I was never going to put them in a situation where they feel powerless or like they are being punished. If they screw up enough to get themselves killed, it will mostly be swift and decisive. Otherwise, they’ll always have options and only poor decision-making or bad luck will get them all killed.

It can be hard to keep again running, especially a story-drive one, when one of the players just lets go as soon as there’s any tension. I can’t make the game feel dramatic if someone is just giving up as soon as things look bad. They start to get angry if it keeps happening and a lot of drama and tension in story-telling is uncertainty or challenge, so I wind up trying to keep them invested without sacrificing too much story. I don’t think this player’s attitude is affecting the other players very much, but I’m hoping it’s just the recent string of bad luck he’s had (which is really just his perception of events, he’s also had some really good luck since he’s only come close to dying or getting captured).

I’m going to talk to him (and will have, before this post goes up) about what’s been going on and workshop some ideas on how to get through it. This isn’t a problem unless it’s making the game less fun for the other players and the person displaying the fatalistic behavior refuses to change. Usually when this happens, as is happening with my player, there’s something causing it. Before you try to address the problem, you need to figure out what this underlying cause is. Once you know that, you need to verbally (and privately) address it with the player so they have the opportunity to change. Not everyone realizes they’re doing it. I’m not even sure if my player recognizes that he’s doing it.

For him, the source lies in some of his first exposure to D&D and a long string of bad decisions compounded by bad luck. His first DM was very adversarial. He tried to manipulate the players constantly, forced them to act a certain way, did his level best to kill them constantly, and gave all of the good magic items and experiences to his closest friends so that other players wound up with under-leveled and under-geared characters who just died all that much more frequently. He’s had a few more experiences between now and then (most of which I’ve seen), but one characteristic of his gaming has always been making decisions without considering the consequences and bad luck on rolls. From the silly little campaign I ran to test out a book world I’d developed to a “Shits and Giggles” campaign I ran to fill my weekends, to my current serious campaign where he seems to constantly get the short end of the stick. Sometimes, it’s because he accidentally stepped on the large stick he had and wound up breaking it, but I’m sure that doesn’t feel very fun to him.

Problems with characters and DMing I can fix. I have no problem helping my players create the best possible version of their character (though I usually insist they stick to a personality rather than just minmaxing) and I generally try to avoid getting adversarial in any context. Bad luck and poor decision-making… There’s not much more I can do beyond being forgiving when he’s legitimately making a mistake as a player versus when he’s doing something reckless or risky. It’s a fine line, but I wrote an entire blog post about how to tell the difference so I’m confident I can manage it.

I hope we can figure something out. I’d hate to think he’s not having fun. That’s all I really want, as a DM.

Tabletop Highlight: What to do When You TPK

It finally happened. Because of some mistakes, poor decisions, or just a run of bad luck, you’ve encountered your first TPK. Don’t worry! A Total Party Kill isn’t the end of the world! You have options! But first, as you should do any time you have a serious, potentially irreversible character death or one that felt like a particularly stinky pile of bullshit, take some time away from the table to breath. Thankfully, only characters have died. The players can still play, the DM can still run, and the game can go on. However, it will likely be different. That’s okay, though. Every time anything major happens, the game changes. This will be just one more of those changes.

The first option is generally the easiest. Instead of being killed, the party has been captured and now must escape the clutches of some dreaded foe. Finally, the rogue can put that escape artist skill to use! The paranoid ranger who has a chime of opening hidden on his person is finally vindicated! The barbarian… well, they just hulk out like usual, but it’s still fun! They’re short on gear, don’t have many hit points, and are on a time limit! They need to escape quickly or quietly. If they’re spotted, they need to move fast. If they get stuck, they might need to make some tough choices about who lives and who dies. If they can remain hidden, they might need to find the hole in the guard rotation so they can escape undetected. Maybe they need to talk their way out and suddenly the paladin’s high charisma is good for more than never failing a save. Or maybe the wizard finally gets a chance to show just how capable he can be in a pinch, even without an hour to prepare his spells. No matter what choice you make, it’s sure to make a memorable adventure.

The next easiest option is to have a conversation with your players. There are three options most players take, sometimes individually but usually as a group. First, they might elect to create all new characters who are going to pick up from where their previous characters left off. Sometimes they’re intentionally recovering the remains, sent on a mission to find the now-dead characters by whoever sent the characters in the first place. Sometimes they’re doing their own thing and stumble over the remains of the dead characters and choose to pick up from where they left off. If they don’t do that, another option might be to just create new characters in the same world, doing their own thing, in a space far from where their characters died. Maybe they’ll eventually have to defeat the villain their previous characters fell to at some point, but maybe not. This is a new adventure and that doesn’t mean they need to even inhabit the same world, much less inhabit the same area of said world. The third option is to decide to stop playing. Some players might decide they want to move on to something else, now that the journey their character was on came to a conclusion. That’s totally fine, as long as they’re not departing angrily. If they are, or if all of your players are choosing to abandon ship now that their characters are dead, it might not be a bad idea to look back and assess if you were running a game they wanted to keep playing.

Another option, which would require a lot of work to keep the players from feeling like you just saved them for expediency, would be to have them wake up in a stronghold of an ally. Maybe they were brought back to life or maybe they were rescued, but it must have been for an important reason, whatever the method. Maybe this ally wants to use them for something and figured having a group of adventurers in their debt due to being returned from death would be sufficient motivation to get them to do whatever this ally wants. Maybe it isn’t an ally but a previously neutral NPC who wants the characters to work for them. Perhaps there’s even some kind of curse or geas placed on the characters that forces them to work for this NPC and now they need to not only pursue their given goals but figure out how to escape from the NPC controlling them. This would be a lot of fun because it’d require a lot of clever thinking on the part of the players, though I can understand that it wouldn’t work for every group.

There’s always an undead campaign. It’d work really well if they died fighting a necromancer or failed to disrupt some horrid ritual that would give the souls of everyone mortal on the material plane to some evil god. Maybe something didn’t go entirely wrong and some aspect of who the characters was before their transformation lingers. With the right kind of build-up, you could create an adventure where they either embrace their new undead forms or find a way to undo their transformations. Maybe they find the last divine caster in the area who was saved from the ritual because they were praying within a consecrated area and they can be returned to life. Or maybe they figure out how to save their souls and then take on the new undead overlords before (or maybe after) using a miracle spell to return the world to the way it was before the ritual went off.

There’s always retconjuration, the magic of changing how things happened, but that almost always feels cheap unless they died because they all rolled a bunch of fails in a row while their enemies rolled nothing but natural twenties. I’d recommend against it if you have literally any other option. You could also effectively un-do their death by stripping them of their gear and saying they managed to just barely survive, but they were looted and left for the vultures. Whoever beat them did to them what they’ve likely done to countless other humanoids and monstrous races. That would be a fun spin on things and I’d love to see how a group of players recovers from being stripped of everything that wasn’t hidden. I love creating moments for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking, so I’d really enjoy seeing what my players did in that case. I might do it as a one-off, sometime, just to see.

All of your options pretty much fit into three categories. Figure out how to get the current characters back into play (capture, not-quite-dead, or undead), create new characters (who may or may not encounter the corpses of their former selves), or just stop playing. If you have any ideas of other options, besides what I’ve listed here, I’d love to hear about them! I’m really curious about what other people do in TPK scenarios when they come up.

Tabletop Highlight: Slogging Through Open War

I’ve always been interested in the idea of a D&D campaign focused around participation in a war. A lot of “classic” D&D campaigns usually include participating in a war, but that’s often tangentially. In version 3.5, the recommended method for including players in a war setting campaign is to give them specialized missions. Stuff like being a strike team sent to seize an important asset, protecting important figures, or capturing important enemy figures. There’s a feat that can be applied to building an army, called “Leadership,” but it is one of the feats that can be most easily abused by an unscrupulous player and all it really does is provide a character with a small army of a few hundred people.

What I’m looking for is to make the players participate in the actual war itself. Giant, sprawling battlefields filled with magic and mighty heroes like something out of an anime. Great battles with terrible consequences for all the poor souls who survived the battle. Rules of conquest, for conquerors and the conquered. The important moments and decisions that are the only things that separate success from failure. Diplomacy to end wars and failure diplomacy to start them. I want something enormous in scale that dice alone don’t really support all that well.

I’ve tried making my own rules. Role-playing through plan making sessions, mixing in a few strike missions to give them something immediate and impactful to do before sending them off to roll a bunch of dice to emulate a day’s worth of combat. Trying to send them into large encounters to have them act as a rallying force to either break through enemy lines or patch up their own lines. Showing how much difference a bard can make by letting them affect as many allies as can hear them over the din of battle and then watching as the relatively minor boost literally turns the tide. Watching the bloody hell that is a wizard or sorcerer unleashed on a battlefield of basic soldiers. The problem has always been that it inevitably breaks down into some rather boring math. There’s no real tension or suspense since the end is pretty much decided from the outset.

For instance, the tank in my current campaign has over 100 HP (the “average” human warrior has 8) and his armor class (how hard it is to hurt him in combat) is 27. Most average human warriors who appear on the battlefield are going to have a spear and a +2 bonus to hitting things and will do 2-9 damage per hit. Which means that, when they roll their die to attack, they will never get a high enough number to hit. If you’re using “natural 20’s” as “critical hits,” then that hit automatically beats whatever AC it’s up against. Statistically, my current campaign’s tank will get hit once out of ever twenty attackers. On the flip side, the same character has a +20 to hit, can hit more than once, and does a minimum of 8 damage per hit. He’ll hit the average warrior every time and kill them every time. If we assume the tank never gets healed, gets hit once every twenty attacks, and is in a position where he can only get attacked once per round of combat (which lasts six seconds), then he’ll get hit once every two minutes for an average of 5 damage, which he’ll be able to do for about an hour before he needs to stop or dies. If he has any kind of protection from damage, which he’d be sensible enough to get in this scenario, he can easily get it down to an average of 2 damage a hit, which means he could keep going about two and a half hours without a break before being overwhelmed. With the healing he can do on his own, he could get himself another hour, at least. With a little pre-planning and the right allocation of magic, he could double all of that, for six hours of fighting and killing. During all this time, he’s killed almost 2,200 enemy soldiers.

The numbers sound nice, but that’s just a talk through of what happened. I could tell him that he did those things, but they wouldn’t really mean much to him because there was no real risk to him and he did nothing terribly exciting. He just slaughtered a bunch of mooks. The same is true of archers. They can stand behind the tank and, with the right boosts, kill a target for every arrow they get to fire. Right now, if the tank’s ally did that, he’d kill almost 5,000 people and that’s without taking a single hit point of damage. After he did that, he could take the tank’s place and then fight for about four hours, bringing his total up to just over 6,000. Throw in a wizard of the right kind and he could probably double that number, over the same ten-hour period. Only the rogue wouldn’t have that level of combat efficacy, but you could easy send him to go kill officers because not even luck will save them from his sneaking abilities. He could easily kill one or more officers or important figures every five minutes. In ten hours, that’s 120 officers or leaders. That’s most of the army’s command.

Throw it all together and you’ve got a pretty typical D&D party taking out an entire army on their own. But it’s boring as hell and there’s no real tension. It’s just numbers on paper. I want more than that. I want to give them a reason to be excited about victories, rather than have them be a foregone conclusion. I want them to feel real fear as they figure out if their character will live or die. Unfortunately, as you can see here, having to chop your way through a bunch of mooks even when you’re already beat up isn’t a big deal. The only tension comes later when you have to fight the guys giving the orders.

Matthew Colville is producing a book for the fifth edition of D&D that’s supposed to include rules for warfare. He apparently uses them in his own games and, after seeing the internet’s response to some of his home rules, he’s now going to share them with us. Having not actually watched any of Colville’s games, I don’t know much about his rules. I’d really like it if they had solutions for the problems I’m facing because I sure as hell don’t. All I’ve got is math and one-off missions that miss the true scope of a war.

In the mean time, I’m going to just stick to large, unwieldy encounters segregated by rooms in towers or castles in lieu of effective warfare rules. It makes it a lot easier when it’s just a bunch of waves for the players to beat down.


Tabletop Highlight: Up For Interpretation

One of the things I’ve struggled with for my entire time as a DM is how to interpret what my players say. In this case, I mean everything from trying to parse vague statements so I can correctly describe my players actions to stuff like determining whether or not the player said the character did something versus having them assess the likelihood of success if they go ahead with that idea. Meaning has gotten fairly easy to ascertain at this point and I’ve learned how to ask them for clarification without giving them information they shouldn’t have, but I’m realizing more and more that the different between thinking out loud and making their character recklessly charge into a situation is mostly on me.

Before my current campaign, this wasn’t something that came up a lot. Since I preferred to run comedic campaigns, I just did whatever the group would find funniest so long as it was actually something they meant to say. Usually, players are pretty good at making it clear when something is a joke their character would never actually do and when it’s something they actually want to happen. Even if it is, most players in my shits-and-giggles campaigns understand that they might need to roll up a new character at any point in time and don’t get too emotionally attached to them. Even if it winds up costing them their character, they’re usually fine with it as long as it’s funny and I’m good at coming up with comedic but nonlethal consequences, so it usually doesn’t come to that.

In my current campaign, (which I’ve taken to calling “Broken Worlds” because the planes of my universe have been shattered by the war between the Good deities and the Evil deities so that only a handful are left in a precarious balance that could send all of existence spiral out of existence at the drop of a pinhead full of dancing angels), the stakes are a little bit higher and my players have more restrictive concepts for their characters. Laughter is always appreciated and silly situations make for excellent sessions, but they’re not going to break character in order to make a joke or exploit some comedic potential. They want to stay true to how their character would act and are more interested in the drama and risk of their current situation than a chance to make a joke. Here, my interpretation of their intent, when it comes to them discussing actions or plotting the course of action their character carries out, matters a lot. It is the difference between spending two in-game (and real-world) hours trying to burn down a wooden door and them spending a minute trying to unlock it.

If you started watching Matthew Colville’s videos on Running the Game, he says that he’s fine giving his players (and their characters) information that they either should know as a result of living in the world or that they’d be able to easily ascertain (that they wouldn’t need to use a skill check to know). I agree entirely, but I draw the line at redirecting their course of action when they’re making assumptions. For instance, anyone who looked at the aforementioned wooden door would have seen that it had a latch and a lock without needing to make a skill check. It is clear as day that the door is locked. To determine the type of lock and whether or not the door has any kind of magical or physical protection, they would need to make a skill check. If they decide that, upon hearing it is a wooden door, that they’re just going to build a bonfire in an attempt to burn it down, I won’t stop them. If I describe something they’re inspecting and they miss it because they aren’t paying attention, then I’m not going to stop them from doing something dumb. That’s an important learning experience for them.

Similarly, how they frame things is important. If they say they go do something, their character has gone and made an attempt at doing whatever it is they said. If they say they’re going to do something, I’ll cut them a little slack. For instance, if the rogue says he turns invisible, dives into the murky water, and positions himself at the last-known location of the octopus they’re preparing to kill, then his character has vanished and then jumped into the water. If he says that he’s going to do that, then I’ll let his fellow players stop him or tell him something the character would know that the player does not which might influence his decision.

I’m not an ass about it. I’ve made it clear to my players that their intent matters and they need to be more circumspect about how much time they spend dithering about or making plans. I even let it slide for the first five levels and gave them a little speech before I started. I was incredibly clear that I was expecting a little more from them and what exactly I was expecting. There’s no way they could spend two hours of real-world time discussing how to attack the next room without some time passing in the game. And if they take two in-game hours to burn down a wooden door they could have unlocked, then there’s a really good chance the people behind the door are going to be prepared for them. I could have just told them the door had a lock, but none of them checked the door for a lock and no one was listening when I told them it was a simple, locked wooden door with iron banding. As much as I love my players, I’m not going to take them time to re-describe something when they weren’t listening the first time unless they actually ask me to do so.

There’s no hard and fast rule about this sort of thing. If you’ve got more experienced players, they probably expect to be taken at their word. They’ll frame things as questions, ask for more details as needed, and try to make quick decisions–be warned: not all experienced players learn this skill. They’re generally good at making their intent crystal clear. If you have newer players, they’ll probably hesitate more and might not be good at policing their expressed intent versus their actual intent. Some players take longer than others and some new players just get it right off the bat. Some games don’t really care as much about punishing people for not being cautious and some don’t really require that much focus on people’s intent because the situations in the game don’t really leave much room for interpretation. There aren’t many ways you could misinterpret fighting a bunch of orcs.

As always, the big thing is to reflect on how it might fit into whatever game you’re running or how you play your character. There’s a lot of room in D&D for being a bit of a word-lawyer. My favorite point to make to DMs as a player is that you don’t need to make a bluff (the skill that lets you lie) check if you’re not actually lying. Most of my characters develop a certain amount of skill for skirting the true as it suits them and my favorite villains to play are the clever ones who get captured. Wordplay is one of my favorite games and not everyone spends their free time practicing how to artfully arrange words so I don’t really expect my players to take things to that level. I just give them a slap on the wrist when they do something dumb. I’ll never give them an impossible situation as a result of their poor decisions, but I will make things much more difficult for them.

After all, what’s the point of playing a game like D&D if doing something dumb doesn’t run the risk of getting you killed? There’d be no tension if they knew they’d be able to take back any wrong decision they make or that there were no consequences for taking too long. If you constantly leave the dungeon to replenish your spells and rest, then the dungeon is going to prepare for your return. They’ll be ready and waiting for you, this time, and heaven–or what’s left of it–help you if you leave again.

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.

This Book Stole my Attention for an Entire Day

After I finished reading Priest by Matthew Colville, I immediately picked up the sequel, Thief. It takes place immediately after the first book, though the focus has shifted a little bit. Instead of sticking almost solely to the protagonist, the view shifts between him and a few of the other important characters. Haden is certainly an interesting character to follow–that’s kind of the requirement to be a protagonist–but it was also incredibly informative to see him through the eyes of the people around him. Beyond that, the second book was an incredible step forward in depicting the scenes and the fight descriptions were exponentially better. I had to put it down shortly after picking it up in order to play D&D, but I picked it up immediately afterward and accidentally stayed up way too late in order to read more of it.

The plot picks up immediately where the first book left off, throwing in enough background information that a new reader would be able to figure out what is going on but not so much that it gets onerous for an established reader to get through. The twists from the last book are still twists, as Colville often reveals the plot information by exposing other characters to either what happened in the first book or some offshoot of it coming back to bite someone else. There are still enough new twists and plot hooks to keep you pulled in and even more of the wonderful world-building that lets you feel the size of the history without spending more time than necessary talking about it. We’re still not sure what happened to split up the group of adventurers that Haden belonged to, but we do discovered more of what happened as a result of the split. We meet some more of his old friends and discover a little more about the life that Haden lived before he retired. We also get to see more of the incredible weapons, artifacts, and allies he has gained over the course of his career and they are just as incredibly powerful and crazy as you’d expect from a high-leveled D&D campaign. Demigods, wealth beyond the dreams of most mortals, and a casual arrogance when it comes to the importance of stuff. Who cares if your building burned down when you’ve got the money to build a new one or for a wizard to just make it not have burned down in the first place?

I honestly really enjoyed seeing the sort of crazy stuff that is so common to D&D enter into a more typical fantasy novel. The wealth thing I’ve already mentioned, but the incredible fights are also a part of it. Haden gets into it with assassins, a member of his old party who he never liked, a giant elf-creature that is basically a minor deity, and a bunch of weird “undead” creatures that aren’t really undead. He overcomes all of his opponents with the exclusion of the other adventurer. He almost dies half the time, but that’s how a lot of the fights in D&D go: you almost die, but that’s only because you focused on ending the fight as quickly as possible. You could have taken a little more time to avoid injury or fix a problem, but you knew that you’d be able to overcome anything but death itself as long as you were still alive at the end of the battle. He gets poisoned by the assassins he fights, but he doesn’t waste time healing the wounds or purifying his blood, he just kills every assassin in maybe half a minute and then finally fixes himself. Even the description of the fight feels short and brutal, reflecting the way the fight would have seemed to anyone participating in it. The big fight with his ex party member is equally brutal, each participant a hair from death at any given time, only surviving by relying on their instinct, guts, and luck. It was incredible to read.

I enjoyed the expanded cast since it brought a lot of interesting character development to the books and highlighted the way we tend to make assumptions about the people we encounter in our lives. I enjoyed one of the relationships, between Haden and a friend he made a dozen years prior to the novel, and how it develops in this book as Haden realizes he maybe didn’t know as much about his friend as he thought he did, but that doesn’t mean his friend isn’t the man he’d come to appreciate and respect. None of the characters ever feel one-dimensional and, while the villain does go on a bit of a stereotypical “I’m all-powerful and can do whatever I want without consequence!” bender, his megalomania is somewhat excused by the way he’s actually cleverly set up his organization and laid his plans. If it wasn’t for Haden and a few things that can be chalked up to back luck for the villain, he’d have been entirely right. No one would have been able to stop him, even if he walked up to the king and confessed his crimes.

There were more spelling and grammar errors in this one, but the only thing that actually threw me off was a couple of places where the wrong name or pronouns were used as it made it seem like the wrong people were saying things or showing up randomly in scenes they couldn’t have been in. That’s a small price to pay for two really solid, incredibly fun books. Since Colville has plans to make some changes and do some editing, I think they both (but especially Thief) have the potential to be incredibly fun reads.

I hate that I have to wait a while longer (probably at least a couple of years, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more than that) for the next book and the updates Colville plans to make, but I really think Priest and Thief are both really solid already. I suggest picking them up if you’re looking for a fun fantasy book and don’t mind starting a series that doesn’t really have a release schedule of any kind.

Not a Young Priest or an Old Priest, but a Middle-Aged Priest

I’m on a bit of a “Matthew Colville” tear this week, so I figured I might as well review the first book in his Ratcatchers series, Priest. As Colville often says in his videos, the best way to support him is to buy his books. Since I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and refreshing information from his videos, I figured I might as well buy his books as a way to contribute to his well-being, despite the fact that I know his recent Kickstarter has helped him build a company that will probably have more to do with his income than his book series will for the next several years. I also figured he’d be a good writer since he does an excellent job with his videos and seems to be a DM people loved to play D&D with.

Priest is a surprisingly complex and nuanced book that stands out from most of the (honestly, pretty awful) D&D-fantasy books I’ve read. To be fair to the genre, I haven’t read most of what people say are the good ones since I get most of mine from used book stores and people seem disinclined to sell the reportedly good ones. I enjoyed it, and I’d say it was a really fun fantasy novel that broke away from a lot of the typical fantasy tropes by relying on the sort of stuff that comes up in a D&D world that is a bigger deal in a typical fantasy novel world.

For instance, the gods are real and have intermediaries who do their bidding, like the titular character, a Priest named Heden who used to be an adventurer. Heden, an ex-ratcatcher–to use the term most people use to talk about adventurers and all the chaos they bring to locals–is a shut-in priest who hates leaving his closed-down inn but is tasked to go investigate The Forest by his immediate superior, the local bishop. Heden not only has to face the dangers of a forest that generally kills everyone who goes into it and brave the mysterious Green Order, an order of knights who protect the locals from the dangers of the forest, but also his own anxieties and PTSD from his past as an adventurer.

There are a lot of mysteries about Heden’s past and Colville does an excellent job of giving the reader just enough information to slowly create a picture without tipping his hand. He lets us know that the past is important because it informs who Heden is and why he’s been chosen to investigate the death of a knight from the Green Order, but he also lets us know that it isn’t a central point of the story. Heden’s PTSD and some of the horrors from his past impact the present, but the important part is him facing them, not exactly what happened years ago. In addition to the glimpses through Heden’s quickly avoided memories, you meet some of the members of his old adventuring group and get a sense that Heden was the reason they’re all retired. Clearly they had all become very powerful by the time they retired, judging from the casual power of the magic items Heden has available to him, but still they all toil away at their own solo endeavors and don’t seem to speak to each other very much.

This cleverly side-steps the problem that arises when you have a large group of very powerful people united towards a single purpose. With all of them together, there would be very little that could stand in their way. Alone, Heden misses important clues in his investigation, can be brought down by sheer numbers, and has a hard time processing what is happening because he’s alone all the time. With the full group, the story would have been over in the first quarter of the book and there would probably be no sequels. Alone, you get to see that Heden still has a lot of growing to do and there is opportunity for mishap when he has to tackle every major task on his own.

The plot was a little frustrating, but that was mostly a personal thing. Heden is supposed to investigate and then redeem or condemn the Green Order, but he struggles with the task because of his own prejudices against knights and because literally everyone seems to put all of the responsibility on him and then do their best to make his job harder. Eventually, you see everyone was acting appropriately, but felt like “there needs to be a problem so everyone is going to be stubborn and difficult” while I was reading it. In hindsight, it was a clever thing to do because it aligned the reader with Heden’s feelings on the matter, but I really dislike stories that have problems because there needs to be a problem, so I almost put it down.

I would definitely recommend this book. It was a lot of fun to read, the characters are all intricate and super interesting, and it deals with something most people don’t consider: what happens to the mental health of adventurers after they retire. Not many stories seem willing to consider they might wind up like a lot of modern combat veterans. I like that Matthew Colville clearly did his research and does an excellent job of bringing PTSD and panic attacks to life in the novel in a way that isn’t so rough that it could easily trigger someone with related issues. I suggest picking up a copy of Priest and giving it a read.