3 March 2018

Response to "Fight Semantics" at Tao of D&D

 Alexis and I were discussing why players always want to don their armour before a fight, and we got drawn into the question of the weapon's role in the defense. Alexis is of the opinion that the weapon is already accounted for in the D&D system by the fact that we do not auto-hit an unarmed combatant. This was originally in comments on this post on Tao of D&D, and then continued here, in a new post by Alexis.

Incidentally, that first post is an excerpt from Alexis' "Masterclass" on DM'ing, available to his patrons on Patreon (of which I am one). I can highly recommend it. Alexis analyzes the DMing techniques he has used in his online campaigns in detail, outlining his thought process, what he was trying to do, what worked and what didn't, and generally giving a fascinating look inside the mind of someone who has run more D&D and thought more about the game than probably anyone around.

Alexis is uniquely suited to running a class like this, having DMed for decades, being one of the most considered thinkers on the game (as demonstrated by his long-running blog and several thoughtful books), and by virtue of having two fairly long-running campaigns run on line using Blogger (and which are therefore preserved in their entirety, and available for extensive analysis and discussion).

You should go sign up! Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming. I promise I'm not being paid to say that, haha!

Weapons on the Defensive - not in D&D!

Alexis was making the case that the weapon's role in your defense is already accounted for in the system.

There's only one problem with that idea - dropping your weapon does not change your opponent's chance to hit you whatsoever.

Which I would say is proof-positive that the weapon's defensive role is not, in any way, included in the system. Increasing defensive prowess with level is included (as represented by increasing HP per level). The weapon's role is decidedly not.

Increasing Defensive Skill and Hit Points

As Alexis points out, D&D uses increasing hit points to model increasing defensive ability with level, but not quite in the way Alexis described (at least not in its original incarnation, which I would argue is still the metaphor used in the game today, despite its origins being lost in time).

In Chainmail, one hit was one kill. In OD&D, *on average* one hit was one kill, but they made HP and damage both 1d6 to add a little randomness. The idea was still the Chainmail conceit that one hit killed a normal person. The Chainmail "hero" took 4 hits to kill, essentially giving the hero 3 mulligans on death, and that's the same approach that OD&D took - each additional hit die *on average* is one mulligan against death. A "hit" was always supposed to be a lethal, fight-ending blow. This neatly explains why characters fight at 100% until they're dead. The waters were muddied as time went on and hit dice and weapons started being different dice, but if you clear away the murk, that is the foundation of the current system.

The Issues with Defense in D&D

In analyzing the issues with defense in D&D combat, we need to tease out and treat individually each of the three factors to defense: hard-to-hit, hard-to-hurt, and hard-to-kill. D&D rolls hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt into one stat (AC), but also puts some of the hard-to-hit into the hit point. It ignores the role of the weapon in hard-to-hit, despite being (possibly) the most important factor. The hit point then involves some hard-to-hit and some hard-to-kill. It's all very muddled.

This muddling causes a variety of issues. For just one, a giant-thrown boulder falling on you doesn't care one whit about your defensive abilities or your armour. It just does damage, and will do damage to Lancelot or his squire equally. But because defensive abilities and life force are rolled into your hit points, and because armour and dexterity are rolled into your hard-to-hit, it's difficult or impossible to tease out how to apply damage in a scenario like that. Theoretically, it would be something like having the giant roll against "touch AC" (which I think only existed as of 3e, being your armour class not counting your armour) and then roll damage multiplied by level (to remove the effect of increasing defensive ability being rolled into the hit points).

Also, because damage doesn't scale up with level, it means that two high-level characters who are equally matched will take a long time to finish a fight, whereas two low-level characters who are equally matched will finish quickly. Which doesn't pass the smell test to me.

Healing is difficult to reconcile into this system, because ostensibly some of your hit points are meat and blood, and some of them are fatigue, and some of them are your increased defensive ability. Well, which ones does a cure spell work on? Which ones get whittled away by walking hours in the cold? It's unclear, because the HP is a mixed metaphor from the get-go.


You can actually fix all this pretty easily in D&D combat by making the following changes.


Weapons and level influence hard-to-hit (i.e. your "AC" is set by a level modifier and a per-weapon modifier). One should actually have three hard-to-hit stats - dodge, block, and parry. Dodge is used against the giant's boulder, a ballista bolt, dragon breath, etc - anything that can't be blocked or parried. Block is used against normal missile attacks and includes the shield. Parry is used against normal melee attacks, and includes the weapon's defensive bonus.


Armour influences hard-to-hurt (i.e. it reduces incoming hit point damage).


And hit points represent only hard-to-kill (i.e. just meat and blood - all hit point loss is of a constant magnitude). This integrates naturally with Alexis' hit points for mass system.


Really, the only difference mechanically from D&D combat is including damage reduction, which is easy enough and better matches our intuitive understanding of what armour does anyway. D&D needs the three categories of hard-to-hit, it just ignores the difference (to its detriment), and it's easy enough to add these to the character sheet.

I don't think any of this is better just because it's more "realistic" (although it is). It's better because it makes each stat clearly model something understandable. This makes it intuitive, easy to understand, and easy to apply to edge cases that weren't necessarily envisioned by the designer. Because the model is explicit and understandable, it's easy for the user to tinker with it, and easy for the DM to make rulings on the fly.

18 December 2017

Railroads vs. Sandboxes

In response to Alexis, here: http://tao-dnd.blogspot.ca/2017/12/everything-is-road.html

This is interesting food for thought, but I don't know that I'm sold on such a broad definition of a railroad - unless I've misunderstood, Alexis is saying any voyage with a destination is now a railroad.

In my mind, the defining features of railroads are the permanence and inflexibility of the route, the scheduled departure and arrival, and the impossibility of changing destination once en route. On a railroad voyage, you are not in control except at stations (where your only choice is to disembark or remain on board until the next station). I cannot board a train and go to my home town. The trains haven't gone there for sixty years. It is impossible. I can go to Montreal, but once I have boarded, I can get off at Kingston or a few other points, but I cannot decide to go to Barrie without disembarking and purchasing a new fare.

Contrast this with a road and a car. I get in, I can pull off the road at any point, stop at a rest stop or just on the shoulder, change destinations at will (along the road network, of course, but at any time). I am in control of the route, the schedule, the destination, and even the moment-to-moment course of the  vehicle, whereas with a train I am not.

The word railroad - emphasis on the "rail" - describes the most restrictive form of travel. Even airlines and cruises, which are superficially similar (set schedules and destinations), have more freedom than railroads. The captain can choose to change destinations at any time to anywhere within range with an airport/harbour, say, in the event of a medical or mechanical emergency, or a hijacking. 

I don't think it's coincidental that we use the most restrictive kind of travel as a metaphor for the most restrictive kind of games. An rpg railroad doesn't merely have a destination. It is controlled by an engineer. It is running on rails. Your options are to get off (and find another game group), or continue to the destination. You will visit the scheduled adventure sites in the scheduled order. Anything not on the itinerary is just so many telephone poles whipping by at sixty miles an hour.

So, at one end we have literally the most restricted form of travel. At the other, we have the sandbox - the ultimate example of self-directed, structureless play. Even more so than on the road network, I'm in control in the sandbox. I can make a hill and raze it, build a road network and have my toys run along it until I'm bored and I decide it's a river and we're rafting along it, then build a town and a forest and play at bandits.

In a game context, we can farm mustard until we get bored, then wander the roads helping travellers until we tire of that and decide to open a river freight business, or go be bandits in the woods, or anything else.

The distinction isn't between whether there is a direction/destination/goal/series of obstacles, it's who is in charge. In a railroad, the DM is the engineer, the conductor, the train, the rails, the stations, and the tycoon who planned the route, while the player is the Sunday tourist seeing the sights by rail.

In a sandbox, the player is the child and the DM is the sand.

From Alexis' conclusion:

"Choosing to set themselves on the path to find a McGuffin and obtain some clues is not how a sandbox works; it only shows a willingness for players to buy their own tickets for the destination they choose.  That's nicer than being told which train we're going to board, but it is STILL a railroad."

I don't know about that. If it's a railroad, then they can't get off, visit the stations in any order, or decide to fuck it and just set up as bandits because it turned out this MacGuffin was boring. If it's a railroad, they'll find the DM-as-conductor putting obstacles in any other path to dissuade them, or sweetening the pot, or otherwise coercing/outright forcing them back onto the rails, because in a railroad, the DM is in charge.

If it's a sandbox, they can decide they don't care about the MacGuffin at any point and make the game about being bandits in the woods, and the DM will roll with it, because the DM is the sand, and there to provide the medium of play.

8 June 2017

Dungeon Design: Shortcuts in the Souls Games

One of the things that drew me into the *Souls video games (Demon Souls, Dark Souls) was their use of shortcuts.

For those not familiar with the series, it is a punishing game where even the humblest enemies are a threat. You die and respawn a lot, and every time you do, all the enemies respawn as well. Your range from the spawn point (they are few and far between) is largely determined by your healing potion supply. It can be hard to push just that little bit farther, every encounter is sapping your strength, and you don't know how you'll be able to reach the boss at all, let alone with enough health to prevail.

However, the worlds are heavily Jacquayed. As you progress, you will find ways to open up shortcuts. This lever raises that portcullis near the spawn that seemed impenetrable, allowing you to bypass the first ten minutes of the level. Here, there's a ladder you can drop down, allowing you to climb up the tower directly instead of wending your way through the castle. After opening up a few shortcuts, you can often get from the spawn to the boss in a few minutes, instead of the hour(s) it took you to find and open all the shortcuts.

The biggest thrill in the game isn't finding a new weapon, or more armour, or another healing potion. It's finding these precious shortcuts!

I love this. I think it should be a part of every dungeon larger than half a dozen rooms.

I'd go so far as to say any megadungeon requires the presence of many such shortcuts.

Get your players looking for ways to cut down their time in the dungeon through shortcuts.

26 December 2015

Forest Excursion - Night-time

I walked some of the same path as the previous post in the dark. Conditions were clear, starlight for illumination. The moon was half full and not yet up. Obviously, there are no photos, as they would not have looked like anything (or, if I used a long exposure, just more or less like an overcast day - this is occasionally surprising to people, as our perception of night is so different, but really it's exactly the same but darker).

First, some general thoughts. While I'm far from an experienced woodsman, this is land I grew up on, that I've walked countless times. I fumbled and lost my way occasionally, even on the path. Even on familiar ground, in a world with no monsters, it was a little unnerving traveling through the woods in the dark. I was glad to have a stout stick with me, silly as that sounds. I'm sure that unreasoned fear would fade if I often traveled by night, but I have grown city-soft from living in Toronto.

The quiet was overwhelming, especially for someone who's lived in the city for ten years. I could hear a leaf fall out to perhaps thirty yards. I could hear hunting dogs barking and howling that could not have been closer than a mile (for that's the nearest neighbour in that direction), and that were probably more like 3 or 4 miles away. I could hear branches break for hundreds of yards.

Once my eyes were adjusted, I could follow the path fairly easily, although I soon learned to keep my arm up to ward off the odd branch that hadn't been pruned back, and to use my walking stick to feel for obstacles. I was able to make a fairly normal pace, only straying from the path and getting caught in thickets a few times.

The denser pine forest, difficult terrain during the day, was impassable at night. During the day, it is noticeably dim under the pines. At night, it was completely dark. No starlight filtered through. Anything hiding in there would have been able to remain completely undetected without the slightest difficulty. I could have passed within ten feet of any number of unspeakable horrors, completely ignorant of their presence.

At one point, something dense and heavy fell from a tree near me with a dull thud. I have no idea what it was, it sounded like it weighed perhaps four pounds and was made of something the consistency of suet. Perhaps a small creature breathed its last breath and fell dead from a tree...

After the end of the path, in the more open deciduous forest, there was enough light to make my way fairly easily, although I don't think I could have sustained a normal pace without a fairly high probability of wrecking my ankle. If I was navigating, the stars were visible, as would be the moon (if it was up), but that was only the case because it was autumn and half the leaves were down.  In the summer, the cover is about 70%, and getting a good view of the stars would be pretty much impossible. The silence was worth noting again - I could easily hear a twig snap, or a small creature moving a hundred yards away or more. I could see dimly about forty yards, it felt like, although movement would probably have been visible a little further away.

And silent movement was completely impossible. Anything within several hundred yards or more that was listening would have been well aware of my progress. The ground cover was dead leaves that rustled with the slightest movement, and it was impossible to take more than a couple steps without crunching a twig or branch. Lest you think "oh, just don't step on them", firstly, you cannot see them, and secondly, sometimes they are beneath the leaves and cannot be seen even in daylight. Branches and small bushes, invisible until it was too late, were constantly getting in my way and rustling or snapping.

An ambush would have been trivial. Concealment wouldn't even be necessary, merely crouching at the base of a tree and remaining very still would hide you until I got within probably ten yards or less - you would just blend in with the tree.

When I turned around to head back for the path, I immediately lost my way. I hadn't gone very far from the end of the path - perhaps a hundred yards - but I couldn't find my may back. I stumbled around, getting caught in thickets, and making an ungodly ruckus for maybe ten minutes before finding the path back into the denser woods.

Back on the path, as an experiment, I used my cell phone screen to approximate a torch for a bit. The light was definitely comforting, although also a little unnerving. In addition to making noise announcing my presence, I was now also waving a huge sign saying "HERE I AM". It didn't really improve the distance I could see, although it made it much easier going - I could step without fear of hurting my ankle. Obviously, it also made me nightblind and totally dependent on it. When I put it out, I could see nothing, where before I could see dim shapes.

All in all, I covered almost exactly a mile in about half an hour, mostly using a path, over familiar terrain, under starlight, stopping occasionally to listen around me. I achieved about 60% of normal walking speed under fairly ideal conditions (it wasn't overcast, it wasn't muddy or raining, no wind, comfortable shoes, well rested and well fed, confident that there are no monsters). The only possible improvement would have been to have a strong moon.

If I had been on unfamiliar ground, without a path, I would have made far, far worse time. I can't imagine I could have managed a half kilometre in a straight line in those 30 minutes I was out. In all likelihood, I would simply have ended up lost and bumbling from thicket to thicket.

23 December 2015

Forest Excursion - Daytime

 A year ago I took a hike over the family lands and took some pictures and recorded some notes in the interest of writing some D&D-related stuff from it. I went with my sister's dog, who tended to wander off on its own and back periodically, which was interesting from the perspective of "would there be an encounter if we weren't together" - i.e. at what point do I become aware of it.

Some of the photos are pretty hideous, but they're supposed to be illustrative and not artistic, and I'm sure the reader will understand. I also struggled with taking photos that really capture the nature and difficulties of the terrain; I experimented with panos, multi-tile fisheyes, and normal photos. I'm not sure which are most successful, if anyone has thoughts, I'd be interested to hear them. Keep in mind that in a 360° panorama, the right and left edge are pointing the same way. Things half an image width apart are 180° from each other.


Rained slightly night before, 12° C (54F), occasional faint breeze, overcast.


Moving carefully, investigating things, stopping for photos, etc., I averaged about 3kph along my route and about 2kph as the crow flies.

On my way back, I just went straight home, and averaged a little over 5kph, which is pretty close to my normal walking speed, but that only ended up being about 4kph as the crow flies.


The dog - about a 40lb ball of energy - was not nearly audible as much as I would have thought. It didn't seem windy at ground level, but the wind in the trees masks a lot of noise. With the dog at full gallop, I couldn't hear her past about 40-50 yards.

The narrow stream (not the larger one in the wetland photos) was audible at about 20 yards (we're talking about a foot across and maybe six inches deep).

Without carrying any gear, and without armour or pack, I quickly overheated and needed to shed my jacket, then my sweater, then my toque.

When the dog was around, she made it hard to listen. She was always moving and shifting about, rustling the leaves, and wasn't well-behaved enough to stop and be quiet. Horses don't make nearly as much noise in my experience.


Some on a good path, mostly moving across open forest. A bit of pushing through what I'd call "closed" forest, where movement and vision is seriously impeded by undergrowth and dense conifers or hawthorn/apple/other short/dense deciduous trees. A bit in the long grass around a large stream/seasonal wetland.

If this was a 1-mile hex, it would contain a farmhouse/barn, two notable wetlands (one of which I went to), a variety of open and closed forest, a large hill (didn't go to). If it was a six-mile hex, it would contain additionally several other scattered houses, another large hill, fields, more wetlands, and the nearby village.

Open forest

Description: Middle-aged deciduous, limited/no undergrowth, 100% dead leaf coverage (noisy), large spacing between trees (~10-20 ft). Movement easy in any direction typically, occasional thicket where some conifers were eking out an existence that could hide ambushes/spies. Occasional hidden muddy patches that look like normal ground but could easily ruin your day by sucking off a boot or wetting your socks. Also, would make a good ambush site - since you sink in with every step, running is almost impossible (moreso with a pack and armour).

Encounter Distance: 10-200 yards, ranging from when you're passing by a thicket, ridge or fold, to when you're on a hill or in a valley with good sightlines.

Gameable features: thicket (reduced visibility, ambush site, impedes movement), ridge (good view from top, more visible, blocks view), small stream (clean water), soft ground (movement impeded, running impossible, ambush site, wet feet)

Open Forest, 360° Pano (click for fullres). The open space in the centre of the photo is soft and wet - easy to lose a boot if they're loose. Hard to tell without stepping in it if you're not using a stick to check your way (I was).

Open Forest, 360° Pano. Ridge in centre, with a more closed conifer stand on it. Firm ground, easy travel. Can walk at same speed as on path.
A stream. If you're not familiar with the outdoors, or the area, it would be very easy for a thirsty traveler to never notice this stream. You can't hear it from more than 20-30 yards away, and it doesn't really look like much.

Closed Forest

Description: Dense conifers, low-lying hemlocks, balsams, etc. Visibility limited (sometimes only a few yards in any direction) and movement extremely slow. Impossible to move quietly, but very easy to hide if you're still. Easy to get scratched up if you're wearing short sleeves or light clothes.

I can't imagine crossing this kind of terrain with a horse/mule/donkey. I'm sure it's possible, but it certainly wouldn't be on its back.

Exists as thickets inside open forest.

Encounter distance: 5-150 yards. Encounters beyond 20 yards would be hearing something moving, but not being able to see it.

Gameable features: clearing (improved visibility within, possible campsite), chance of lost/damaged gear, attrition (hit points/flesh wounds for crossing), stream, large puddle (drinkable)
Have fun getting through there in your armour with a pack, weapons, bedroll, etc., and forget horses.

Closed forest thicket in surrounding open forest, crop of a fisheye. Jacket for scale. Perfect ambush site - if people come to fill their canteens in the stream at the bottom of the photo, they are vulnerable to missile fire from the top of the hill, while the assailants are protected to either side by dense growth, and straight on by the fallen tree and the treacherous, rocky ground. Charging up the hill against a few people with crossbows would be suicide.

Seasonal Wetland

Description: Grasses 3-4ft tall, could have hidden any number of enemies. Easy to stumble into a hole and get a soaker.

Stream forms core of wetland. Occasionally a serious obstacle if you want to stay dry (1-2 ft deep, 6ft across) when only twenty yards up or down stream it was easy to cross (either by fallen tree, or because it had broken up into numerous smaller streams). At times, broadens into a swamp-y/pond-y thing 100 yards across or more.

Boundary between forest/wetland characterized by bad footing, slippery rocks, difficult-to-see holes about a foot across full of water waiting to twist your ankle in. Can't see anything past the boundary from the wetland, can see out a little from the forest.

Encounter distance: 1-200 yards. Close encounters with things hidden in the long grass. Far encounters with things on the far boundary, or standing/walking in the grass.

Gameable features: dry crossing point (fallen tree, or simply where the stream narrows/splits), islands.

360° pano of wetland, stream portion. The stream isn't very deep, but that's not immediately obvious. It's about 100 yards to the far side (the stand of conifers about 1/4 in from the right). The wetland meanders for about a mile in both directions. The stream is easily crossable anywhere if you don't mind a soaker, and if you spend ten or fifteen minutes looking around, you can cross it safely without getting wet.

From about the same point as the previous pano, about ten or twenty yards from the edge. Can you spot my jacket hanging in a tree? It's just inside the forest, no more than fifty feet away, and yet it's almost invisible. The break in the grass in the bottom right is a little offshoot of the main stream.
360° pano. Pond/swamp portion of wetland. This is only a couple hundred yards east of the previous pano. Crossing at this point would require wading - probably up to your chest, but I've never tried. If you spend half an hour looking around, though, you'll discover it narrows to what you saw in the other photo just a little ways down. It gets less passable in the other direction (quite wide and deep, maybe 200 yards across, and probably at least six feet deep, if not more).

21 December 2015

Alignments that Aren't Stupid

While alignments as proposed by Gygax are thoroughly stupid, the concept of alignment could perhaps be a useful one, albeit in a manner fairly unrelated to the most common six-axis view of the system.

If you asked me, in real life, what my alignment is, I'd probably tell you my political affiliations. I'm a socialist, and am aligned with Canada's socialist party, the NDP. Someone else might be strongly influenced by their faith - they're aligned with the Catholic Church, say, or Sunni Islam.

This means that, on a broad range of issues, our ideas line up - they align. And this is useful and gameable information. If you're running an NPC in modern Canada, and you know they're NDP-aligned, that tells you a lot about them. Any issue that you're not sure how the NPC feels about, you can fall back on their alignment, and say that there's their opinion.

This needn't be as grandiose as supporting warring dynasties like being aligned with the House of Lancaster or York. Peasants in a village could be aligned with the Reeve or the Lord of the Manor, or perhaps the outlaws in the woods. Villagers could be aligned with a Guild, or the Mayor, or the Bishop.

Like in real life, people could be aligned with more than one faction. Someone could be aligned with the Catholic Church, the local Reeve, and the King, in that order. So, if you don't know how they feel about something, you can default to one of those positions as a shortcut.

So, an alignment line on an NPC sheet could look like:

Alignment: Pope>Reeve>King

Denoting that the NPC is Catholic and strongly aligned with the Pope and his beliefs. On matters that don't include the Pope's opinion (say, whether the village should plant more beans next year), the NPC will generally side with the Reeve. And on matters that involve neither (France is an enemy), they'll side with the King.

19 October 2014

Alignments are still stupid

Just in case anyone had forgotten, alignments are still stupid and valueless.

We get along in daily life just fine without alignments. We know that ISIS are a pretty bad lot, and we don't need a know alignment spell for that. Thing is, nothing is as simple as an alignment makes it out to be. They don't think they're evil. They think they're good, and we're evil. They're not, like a demon, out to cause suffering - they're out to *right wrongs* and *fight evildoers* and *do god's work*. They're the *good guys* - to them.

Contrast that with something unambiguous, like a demon. It lives to cause suffering, sow confusion, turn brother against brother. It feeds on discord and disharmony. It has one goal: harm. It is *evil*. But that's not an alignment, that's its *nature*.

Was Donald Rumsfeld chaotic evil? He certainly seems like it, but a more probable explanation than the apparent one (he just wants to cause mayhem and suffering) is that he's on a deeply misguided quest to help himself and his friends and maybe his country. So, is he lawful good? Chaotic good?

He's not evil or good or lawful or chaotic - he's just a person, like anyone else.

Sure, you could assign an alignment to him, argue your case, and I could assign another one, and argue my case, and at the end of the day - how has that helped us understand him? How does that help us in any way?
Assigning an alignment to Rumsfeld doesn't help us at all.

Another example: was Gaddafi chaotic evil? He did some twisted shit, to be sure, but he also eradicated homelessness in Libya, fought for the rights of women and blacks (elements of society traditionally crushed underfoot in North African/Arab/Muslim society), worked to reduce income inequality, sought pan-Arab and then pan-African solidarity - creating the African Union. He worked within the law when it suited him, and outside the law when it suited him. Sometimes he did good, sometimes he did evil.

Was he Chaotic Good? Was he Lawful Evil? You could make a convincing case for both. You could make a strong case for Chaotic Neutral.

The point is, the alignment system doesn't actually work. Everybody is all of the alignments some of the time. We're people, we're complex. We can't be reduced to a two-axis chart.

I should hope your PCs and NPCs are the same.